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Virginia Football Opponent Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

The South’s Oldest Rivalry will be renewed for the 104th consecutive season

Virginia v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Mack Brown returns for his fourth year as the lead man of the Tar Heels in his current stint. After 2021 saw the Heels finally avenging the recent success of the Virginia Cavaliers, Tony Elliott looks to turn the tide right back around.

2021 Recap

Record: 6-7

Postseason: Duke’s Mayo Bowl (Loss to South Carolina 38-21)

In the months leading up to the 2021 season, many saw UNC as a dark horse to win the conference, being picked in the preseason polls to compete with Clemson in the title game. Of course, things did not go as expected, and the Heels fell to a mere 6-6 (3-5) before a convincing loss to an SEC foe in their bowl game.

The consensus around the media is that the on-field coaching is not at the same level as the recruiting was. That was evident when, after UNC suffered a 45-22 loss to a bad Georgia Tech team, players stated that they were not prepared for the running threat of quarterback Jeff Sims.

But even holistically, UNC had prior recruiting classes filled with blue chip recruits. Many did not see the field in favor of experienced veterans and those that did heavily underperformed.

However, there are a few encouraging signs for Tar Heels fans. New defensive coordinator Gene Chizik re-enters the program with a more proven track record than Jay Bateman, who held that role for the previous three seasons.

Offensively, many see quarterback Sam Howell as one who bailed out UNC’s offensive woes but in a way, exacerbated them too. He had a tendency to hold onto the ball for a long time and process things more slowly than some would have hoped. Add poor offensive line play and Howell took 45 sacks, the second most in the FBS.

2022 Preview

Key returners: WR Josh Downs, DL Myles Murphy, CB Tony Grimes

Key departures: OL Josh Ezeudu, QB Sam Howell, RB Ty Chandler

Key new faces: OL Zach Rice, RB George Pettaway, LB Noah Taylor (Virginia)

North Carolina was picked third in the coastal division, just ahead of the Hoos. With a more moderate national expectation, the mindset around the UNC program has completely shifted.

Offensively, Drake Maye will start under center. Maye is a more decisive signal caller who gets praised the most for his arm strength. As is the case with any first time starter, inexperience will hurt him to some degree but by their matchup in week ten, UVA will have a good idea of what they are dealing with.

The good news for Maye is that the team’s top target, Josh Downs, returns. Downs has shown impressive burst and elusiveness, which allowed him to lead the country in yards after catch last season.

On the other side of the ball, Chizik is expected to implement a 4-2-5/4-3 defense with a hybrid SAM linebacker and nickel back position. The most capable portion of the defense is the defensive back room, headlined by outside cornerback Tony Grimes, but this unit struggled from a results standpoint last season.

A linebacker UVA fans know well, transfer Noah Taylor, will be another x-factor on this defense as someone who can cover in space but also blitz effectively.

Series History

UVA’s all-time record vs. North Carolina: 59-63-4

Last meeting: September 18, 2021 — North Carolina 59 - Virginia 39

Last season saw UVA snap their four game winning streak in this rivalry after a jam-packed affair. The Hoos overcame an early three score deficit to take a 28-24 halftime lead. However, the Heels continued to run the ball down Virginia’s throat and despite Brennan Armstrong’s 554 yard passing performance, they fell plenty short.