After an ACC Coastal Division title and its best season since 1997, North Carolina is determined to prove that 2015 was no fluke – rather a preview of years to come in Chapel Hill. What better way to prove yourselves than against one of the SEC’s best programs?
The Tar Heels offense stacks up to just about any in the country, with one of the top offensive lines, receiving corps and running games in the ACC. Yes, this is junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s first season as starter, but his stats and teammates will tell you that he is far from a rookie. As Marquise Williams’ backup in 2015, Trubisky completed 40 of his 47 passes for 555 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He added three rushing touchdowns and had a passer efficiency rating of 226.4. (To put that into perspective, Baylor quarterback Seth Russell led the country with a rating of 189.7, for eligible players)
“It’s not like Mitch is coming out of nowhere,” senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “Mitch has got a very rare and unique arm talent. He’s very strong and can fit the ball into a lot of places other quarterbacks can’t. “
One of Trubisky’s biggest assets will be the ability to turn around and hand the ball to Elijah Hood. In his breakout 2015 season, Hood established himself as one of the nation’s most physical backs – carrying the ball 219 times for 1,463 yards (6.7 yard per carry) and 17 touchdowns. He says he is fully acclimated to everything that comes with UNC’s fast-paced offense and is reading defenses faster than ever before. Georgia returns every starter from a secondary that led the nation in passing defense, but just one player from its starting front seven, so expect a heavy dose of Hood early and often.
While the North Carolina offense should pick up right where it left off, there’s one glaring question facing the Tar Heel defense – can it stop, or at least limit, Georgia’s run game? Last season, the Heels had one of the worst run defenses in the country, giving up 247.4 yards per game and 5.13 yards per carry.
First-year head coach Kirby Smart has decided to go with experience over potential at quarterback. Fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert will start over freshman five-star recruit Jacob Eason. Lambert, who transferred to Georgia from Virginia in July of 2015, faced the Tar Heels as Virginia’s starter in 2014. He completed 20 of his 40 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The interceptions – one in the red zone and another late in the fourth quarter – proved costly in a 28-27 Tar Heel win.
Lambert manages the game well and takes care of the football, but isn’t much of a big play threat. In his 12 starts for the Bulldogs in 2015, Lambert threw for more than 200 yards just twice and Georgia’s passing attack ranked 104th nationally. That leads one to believe that Georgia will rely heavily on its running game, led by all-SEC running back Nick Chubb. Chubb was putting up Heisman-worthy numbers last year before a gruesome knee injury ended his season in Week 6.
At 5’10”, 228 pounds, Chubb is a physical back that doesn’t go down easily. Luckily for the Tar Heels, they have their own punishing back that they face every day in practice – something senior cornerback Des Lawrence says will benefit them greatly on Saturdays.
“If you’re going to run and touch him or tackle him, you got to bring something because he’s going to try to run you over,” Lawrence said of trying to tackle Hood. “But it only helps for Saturday’s because you’re not going to see too many more backs that try to run through you. Most of them try to get out of the way and score, but he wants to go through you.”
For a North Carolina program that has been poised to take off for years, the chance to knock off a top-tier team on a national stage is a huge opportunity. Under head coach Larry Fedora, the Heels are just 1-7 against ranked teams. They’ve shown they can compete at a high level, but have to start winning these big games to prove to the rest of the country they are legitimate ACC and playoff contenders.