One of the more underrated Tech rivalries of the past decade is set to renew on Saturday as the Jackets host the North Carolina Tarheels. Tech leads UNC 30-20-2 overall, but throughout the last five years, UNC has led 3-2.
Under the presence of leadership from head coach Mack Brown, who returned to UNC this year after coaching at the school from 1988-1997, the Heels have found unexpected success in their first season. North Carolina opened the season 2-0 with wins over a highly-touted Miami team and South Carolina. Despite dropping consecutive close games to Wake Forest and Appalachian State, the Heels came away with a moral victory against No. 1 Clemson, taking the Tigers to their final possession before ultimately falling 21-20. Per College Sports Reference’s strength-of-schedule metric, UNC has had the toughest schedule in the country to date, so the team is considerably better than their 2-3 record may indicate.
Leading the charge for North Carolina is freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who has already shown signs of promise against some of the best defenses in the country. Howell ranks fifth in the ACC in passing efficiency rating with a respectable 153.1 figure, but that number has come despite facing defensive powerhouses in Clemson and Miami, both of whom rank in the top 25 when it comes to points allowed per game. Howell’s solid performance against such stifling defense bodes well for North Carolina, given that Tech’s defense to date has been middling at best. This game represents an opportunity for the Heels to explode.
Meanwhile, Tech’s offense has struggled against a much less impressive strength of schedule — following the Jackets’ embarrassing offensive performance against Temple in which the only two points Tech scored came on a safety play, Tech ranks dead last in the country in points per game out of all 130 FBS teams. Tech’s attempts at moving towards a pro-style, pass-heavy offense have stalled out so far — as in the past decade when Tech ran the run-heavy option, the Jackets rank fifth-lowest in the country in passing yards, ahead of only option programs. Even Tech’s normally resolute run game has struggled — Tech has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this year, a steep decline compared to last year’s 5.7 figure.
Injuries have played no small part in Tech’s woes, as the offensive line has been decimated. Both Jahaziel Lee and Kenny Cooper are out for the season, and as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted this week, Tech is down to only ten scholarship offensive linemen. With wide receiver Jalen Camp also out for the season, and QBs James Graham and Lucas Johnson questionable for Saturday, the burden will fall to Tobias Oliver and Jordan Mason and the remnants of Tech’s ground game from last season to manufacture offense.