After hitting their stride and winning five of their last six games in Will Healy’s first season calling the shots, the 49ers are looking to build on the program’s best season in 2020.
As the schedule has changed and rearranged due to COVID, the 49ers have now found themselves with seven of their 11 games on the road, and just one of their first five in the Queen City.
Charlotte will match up with seven teams that achieved bowl eligibility last season and will play six games in the state of North Carolina. Let’s take a look at the 2020 slate in descending order of strength. There isn’t a single FCS or “gimmie” game on the schedule. Even the lowest-ranked team on this list lead against Charlotte late into the game in 2019.
Dana Dimel’s team returns 10 starters from last season’s campaign and has a new face in Gavin Hardison at quarterback. The Miners won their first game in 2019 against FCS opponent Houston Baptist and proceeded to lose 11 straight including a 28-21 collapse against the 49ers in week 10.
Last year's game featured the most passionate and frustrated halftime speech in Healy’s time with Charlotte. The 49ers scored 21 straight and escaped El Paso on a late-game goal line stand.
10. North Texas
The 2019 matchup between these two programs was one for the ages and featured a dramatic comeback where Chris Reynolds found Victor Tucker for the game-winning touchdown with 18 seconds remaining.
With Mason Fine having played his last down for the Mean Green, it seems to be Jason Bean’s job to lose as he served as the No. 2 last season. However, Kentucky transfer Armani Gilmore is an intriguing option with his dual-threat ability if he is indeed eligible.
Tre Siggers rushed for 853 yards last season but will have his work cut out for him as the Mean Green look to replace four starters on the offensive line.
9. Georgia State
The Panthers upset the Tennessee Volunteers in the first week of the 2019 season and posted a 7-6 record on the shoulders of do-it-all QB Dan Ellington. Replacing Ellington’s production will be a tall task, but with the return of four starters on the offensive line, two All-Sun Belt tight ends, and a solid receiving corps, Shawn Elliot’s group has all the tools to pose problems for the 49ers.
This is the fan-less home-opener for Charlotte, and I expect Chris Reynolds to have a big day against a weaker secondary. The Panthers gave up 8.5 yards per throw and 27 touchdowns through the air in 2019.
8. Middle Tennessee
Charlotte bested MTSU for the first time in program history during their five-game win streak late in the 2019 season. The Blue Raiders are returning C-USA Player of the Year favorite, Asher O’Hara. The sophomore accounted for 29 touchdowns, 2,616 yards through the air, and 1,044 yards on the ground, the most rushing yards of any quarterback in Conference USA.
The 49ers took a commanding 34-7 lead after the half against the Blue Raiders and made O’Hara one dimensional, although he did account for 148 yards on the ground and three total scores on the game. Charlotte will look for a repeat performance in Murfreesboro on the first weekend of November.
Following a 6-7 season, the Panthers must replace starting QB James Morgan and make significant strides in the run defense department to get back above .500 in 2020. Butch Davis’ unit ran over the 49ers in 2019, 48-23, to extend their head to head win streak to 5.
I am interested to see if Tre Harbison or Aaron McAllister will pick up where Benny LeMay left off in slicing up the Panthers front 7. If the Panthers can avoid the injury bug biting and get the QB situation settled, they have the pieces to make a run for the East Division crown.
FAU steamrolled Charlotte on the 49ers’ homecoming weekend to avenge their last-second loss by the leg of Jonathon Cruz back in 2018. With Lane Kiffin, Chris Robison, and Harrison Bryant all having moved on from the program, this team is going to have a much different look under Willie Taggart.
Nick Tronti originally verbally committed to Charlotte out of high school but flipped to Indiana and eventually transferred to FAU. He was utilized in a plethora of run packages last season but will be relied on to run the show with Malcolm Davidson as they look to repeat as C-USA champs.
The Owls scored on a 75-yard jet-sweep on the first play in 2018 and took the same play 66-yards down to the 49ers 3-yard line on the first play in 2019. If it happens again this year I may lose my mind.
Charlotte upset Marshall to achieve bowl eligibility on a rainy senior day in 2019. Marshall returns C-USA player of the year Brenden Knox, as well as four stout bodyguards on the offensive line.
Redshirt freshman Grant Wells was recently named as the starting quarterback. At 6-2, 204lbs, he has the arm to provide a different aspect to the Herd’s offensive attack.
The 49ers contained Knox relatively well in 2019 and will need more of that to secure a big conference win in Huntington this year. This game comes at the end of a three-game road trip in the penultimate game of the regular season.
4. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers ultimately beat Charlotte 30-14 last season, but I believe the tides turned for the 49ers defense in that game as they held WKU scoreless in the fourth quarter. Following the loss, the 49ers rattled off five straight wins to become bowl eligible. Charlotte’s potent ground and pound attack was limited to only 86 total yards, one of their lowest totals of the season.
WKU is stout on both sides of the trenches with the best offensive line in the conference and C-USA Defensive Player of the Year favorite DeAngelo Malone keeping opposing offensive coordinators up at night. Gaej Walker flipped from DB to RB last season and rushed for 1,208 yards and 8 scores on the ground. This matchup is slated for the 49ers’ senior day and could have massive implications for both the C-USA championship race and bowl eligibility.
Halloween night is going to be a fun one in Durham. The Blue Devils dropped five straight late in 2019 and finished with the 114th ranked offense in the nation. Former Clemson backup QB Chase Brice transferred to Duke and is expected to be the man moving forward.
David Cutcliffe’s unit has two weeks to prepare for Charlotte, their lone non-conference game, but has a matchup with rival UNC the following week. This is the first matchup between the two programs and is what I believe to be one of the most likely upsets over a P5 school.
2. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers return a ton of talent this season and are lead by first-year coach Shawn Clark. With a solid senior class headlined by Zac Thomas and 17 preseason all-conference players, the Appalachian faithful are in good hands.
Charlotte put up a fight in week 2 of 2019 but ultimately fell 56-41 as they could not contain Darrynton Evans and avoid special team miscues. The Mountaineers’ top receiver, Corey Sutton, missed the 2019 matchup and will miss this year’s as well as he opted out due to COVID earlier this week. Expect Thomas Hennigan to see an abundance of targets against the smaller Charlotte defensive backs.
1. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are coming off their first bowl appearance and winning season since 2016. Sam Howell and the Carolina offense are poised to be one of the most dominant in the nation. The wide receiving corps has the size and speed to pose immediate problems for the 49ers secondary in the first matchup between the two programs.
UNC is ranked 12th in the preseason AP poll and welcomed the 16th highest-ranked recruiting class according to ESPN. Carolina’s defensive line depth is reported to be the biggest concern at the beginning of the season. Charlotte gets them in week 2 with no fans in attendance, but artificial crowd noise will be allowed.