Photo Credit: Jake Roth
After last year's 43-41 six overtime thriller, the 2020 showdown between Virginia Tech and North Carolina was circled on many calendars especially those in Chapel Hill clamoring for this to become a rivalry even though the Hokies are 4-0 under Justin Fuente against UNC and have only lost three times to UNC since joining the ACC.
However, this game has become one of the biggest games of the week on the most loaded Saturday of the college football season to date with both teams looking to make their case as to why they are serious threats to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
So with that said, here's our picks for the showdown between the #19 Hokies and #8 Tar Heels.
I've been extremely split on this pick as if we knew both teams would be at full strength, I would definitely be going with the Hokies albeit in a close, one-score game. Instead, both teams may be without key players though the Hokies have the bigger questions with the unknowns of who may still be out in their secondary.
Additionally, the stage is set for a tremendous battle between Tech's dominant rushing attack led by Khalil Herbert who is averaging 12 yards per carry facing a UNC rush defense that leads the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. While Tech most likely won't have 300+ rushing yards again, I do think Tech will have some success especially after the way they wore down a talented Duke defensive line with a pair of All-ACC talents in Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph.
There's been plenty of talk as to whether we'll see Hendon Hooker, Braxton Burmeister, or both with my understanding being to expect both. Tech's passing game has been inconsistent with Burmeister and if Hooker is back, Tech may just have the type of passing game that they need to prevent UNC from stuffing 8 in the box.
Meanwhile, Sam Howell and UNC's passing attack maybe hasn't lived up to the full hype yet, but this is a bad matchup for the Hokies whether it's against a secondary with players just returning or against a depleted secondary which Duke's Chase Brice had his best game of the season against. Dazz Newsome has been quiet so far, but Tech struggled to contain him last year
Rain has been talked about as a potential factor and while it won't have nearly the same impact as it did four years ago, it could mean we see both teams emphasize the run more. While that does benefit Tech some, UNC also has a solid rushing attack led by the versatile Michael Carter who Tech will have to watch all game as a major threat both in the passing and rushing attacks.
This will be a very close game and while my analysis leans slightly towards North Carolina, I just have a gut feeling that Tech's experience and toughness will be key while their special teams led by a bounce back game from Tayvion Robinson will help make the difference for the Hokies. This one will be extremely close, but Justin Fuente will improve to 5-0 against UNC as the Hokies pull off the upset in Chapel Hill thanks to a strong rushing attack and a defense that bends but doesn't break enough.
Pick: #19 Virginia Tech 38, #8 North Carolina 34
Without the full squad at Fuente's disposal, the Hokies have won two straight on the back of a potent running attack with a physical offensive line. That formula tends to travel well on the road, but that may be tough against a UNC defense that has only allowed 54 rush yards per game. Tech is not likely to run for 300 yards or average seven yards per carry so the Hokies' success on offense will be reliant on consistent quarterback play. With Hendon Hooker finally set to debut on Saturday, it appears they should get that. UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt will need to be at his best when reading the Hokies' lateral run game while making sure Hooker does not have easy completions over the ball.
North Carolina's offense has been more balanced, but also relatively inconsistent. In the first half of the Syracuse game and parts of last week's matchup against Boston College, the Tar Heels could not get much going which was surprising given the inferiority of their opponents. Sam Howell has flashed but has thrown three interceptions in two ACC games. Tech has yet to field a complete defense this year and it is unknown if they will be able to do so against UNC.
This could be the get right game Howell needs to get the offense rolling again. Although the young secondary performed well enough at Duke, this will be a much tougher challenge. I would expect the Tar Heels to put up points, particularly due to the combination of the lack of live reps and continuity expected for the Hokies secondary.
Overall, I expect this to be a high scoring game with each team putting up 30-plus points. However, I do think the Hokies will have a tougher time gaining yards due to how well UNC matches up against Virginia Tech's run game. This game will likely come down to the last possession.
Pick: #8 North Carolina 35, #19 Virginia Tech 31
After continuing their strong start to the season against Duke last week, the Hokies are set for a difficult test in Chapel Hill this week.
Now we don’t know if we are going to get a replica of last year’s six overtime thriller in Blacksburg, but this year’s matchup will be the first time that both teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Polls
The similar questions of availability lay with the Hokies heading into this week’s matchup as the secondary could continue to miss its key pieces including Jermaine Waller and Divine Deablo.
That will be a major problem defensively for the Hokies as North Carolina QB Sam Howell is considered as one of the better players at his position in the nation.
A bright spot for the Hokies has been where they have been the most healthy, their pass rush and rushing attack.
Through their first two games of the season, the Hokie have recorded 13 sacks out of 19 tackles for a loss in wins against N.C. State and Duke.
Emmanuel Belmar broke through last week with his career-high three sacks against the Blue Devils and as the reigning ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week will look to bring the same production against the Tar Heels.
There hasn’t been a better story in Blacksburg than RB Khalil Herbert who leads the nation in all-purpose (276.5) and rushing yards (156) per game.
His performance of 207 rushing yards and 150 returning yards against Duke landed him on the ACC Team of the Week twice, running back and specialist of the week.
Before the season began, we circled this matchup as a must win for the Hokies as the road ahead to Charlotte could become much more agonizing with a loss in Chapel Hill.
As well as the Hokies have been playing, I believe their missing parts will be the cause of this game getting away from them and giving the Tar Heels the slight victory.
Pick: #8 North Carolina 33, #19 Virginia Tech 27
UNC poses a looming challenge for the Hokies. After two big wins over N.C. State and Duke, Virginia Tech will look to improve its record to 3-0 against North Carolina this Saturday.
One thing that separates this matchup from Virginia Tech’s first two games is that North Carolina is widely regarded nationally as a better team than the Hokies. In the past two weeks, Virginia Tech has entered as the favorite, but the Tar Heels will be favored heading into Saturday’s contest.
A huge factor that needs to be addressed when predicting what will happen on Saturday is the weather. The game is being played at UNC, and as of the writing of this piece, the forecast projects a rainy game. With that being noted, expect a run-heavy offensive scheme for both teams.
The rain will work in the Hokies’ favor in two different ways. On the offensive side, Virginia Tech will be able to lean on standout halfback Khalil Herbert, who has racked up 312 yards and three touchdowns through the first two games. Herbert has also averaged an astounding twelve yards per carry. Establishing the run game will be crucial for the Hokies as they face a stout Tar Heel defensive line.
On the other side of the ball, the wet conditions could limit the number of passing opportunities for promising UNC quarterback Sam Howell. Howell is likely the second best signal caller Virginia Tech will face this year after Trevor Lawrence who comes to Blacksburg in December. Neutralizing Howell would be a large enough task in itself, but the challenge could be even greater with the uncertainty regarding the secondary and COVID inactives. The moist conditions will surely help with keeping Howell at bay.
While I personally think both teams are relatively equal in terms of talent, I’m going to predict a Hokies victory this Saturday given the circumstances.