Start time: 7:30 p.m. EST, Sept. 11
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Records: GSU (0-1), UNC (0-1)
Spread: UNC -26.0; O/U 66
Both Georgia State and North Carolina lost their 2021 season openers, but the story of the games were drastically different. Georgia State was dominated by Army’s time-controlling offense and nothing-given defense while UNC held ACC rival Virginia Tech to just 17 points but just could not get the offense to click.
The Tar Heels were ranked tenth in the preseason AP Poll but fell to 24th after their loss. The Panthers were the only team in the Sun Belt’s East Division to lose its season opener and after one week has the second-worst defense and tied-for-bottom offense in the entire SBC.
Who is North Carolina?
The Tar Heels play a high-caliber offense trademarked by junior quarterback Sam Howell’s UNC record-breaking play. In his two full seasons as the starter, Howell has put up the second and third-best passing seasons in the school’s 133-year history.
Unfortunately for UNC, they could not get Air Howell to lift off. Heck, it couldn’t even leave the tarmac. He passed for 208 yards, his lowest since a November 2019 game against Mercer in which he passed only 13 times. Howell was sacked six times, three of those came on three consecutive passing plays, and was picked off three times; in 2020 Howell threw a total of eight interceptions over thirteen games.
The offensive struggles stem from a lack of established weapons and a curious offensive line situation.
In 2021 UNC lost four skill position players to the NFL Draft. Those four players, two running backs and two receivers, combined for 4,811 combined yards of the Tar Heels’ 6,447.
Sophomore receiver Khafre Brown and grad student Garrett Walston are the only remaining high-volume weapons from last season (high being a relative term; the two combined for 34 receptions last season). Brown missed the game against Virginia Tech and Walston caught just one pass for six yards.
Sophomore Josh Downs is the early passing catching leader for UNC; in one game he made more receptions and gained more yards than he did in all of the 2020 season. He caught a team-high eight passes for 123 yards.
While the offensive weapons issue is due to the predictability of graduation and going pro, it is not a factor with the men in the trenches. The current best five is a quintet that has played three years together and played last season as the same unit. The UNC O-line, unfortunately, is falling to the mercilessness of injury… and at the most important position.
Center Brian Anderson missed the preseason and is still working his way back from a lower body injury. There is no currently available timetable for return.
The replacement center, rotational guard Quiron Johnson, had only one prior start as the man in the middle. Head coach Mack Brown played around with moving a guard to tackle and tackle to guard, an experiment he said would halt until Anderson returns.
“We had miscommunication on the offensive line,” Brown said. “That is my fault.”
The UNC defense, like many successful defenses, does not have many storylines attached. They forced an unremarkable two turnovers, recorded just one sack all game, and allowed a pedestrian 296 yards. But the defensive Tar Heels showed up when it counted— the Hokies were 6/13 on third downs— and kept their opponent to just 17 points.
North Carolina’s secondary was fairly average— VT quarterback Braxton Burmeister completed 12 of 19 passes for 169 yards— but the front seven was dominant. No Virginia Tech rusher reached 50 yards and the team was held to three yards per carry.
How does GSU win?
It is less of a how do they and more of a can they. Last week’s embarrassment at home against Army doesn’t scream upward trajectory.
There is a conversation to be had about how many points UNC will score. Georgia State’s defense did concede 43 but showed flashes of strength, particularly on third downs. The Tar Heels converted only two of their ten attempts against Virginia Tech.
Obviously, the Panthers won’t keep UNC to just ten points like the Hokies did, but it is hard to imagine another six-touchdown performance from GSU’s opponent.
But can GSU outscore the Tar Heels? Probably not. The offense was without lead receiver Sam Pinckney last week and is expected to be game-ready for week two, but is an additional weapon enough to surpass ten total points? Again, probably not, considering the brunt of the offensive issues came due to lack of ground production. The Panthers recorded just 48 rushing yards on 28 attempts.
In order to put up a winning points total, GSU needs to crack through the strong UNC rushing defense that allowed just three yards per carry to Virginia Tech. The passing game is just good enough to win games, but the rushing attack needs to improve drastically; unlikely against the Tar Heels.
It could get ugly for the Panthers. UNC had a poor showing week one, but it is still a nationally ranked team that plays in an elite football conference. GSU, on the other hand, looked very poor and created more questions than it answered last week. Vegas says Heels by 26, which feels extreme, but after week one the Panthers proved anything is possible.
Prediction: 34-23 North Carolina Victory