When Week 1 of the 2016 college football season rolls around, North Carolina’s Sept. 3 matchup against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta will be among the headlining showdowns of the opening weekend.
Both teams will be ranked. Both have lofty aspirations for this fall. And both need to make an early season statement.
For Georgia, it’s a chance to get the Kirby Smart era started off on the right foot. For North Carolina, it’s an opportunity to score a season-opening victory over a Top 25 opponent.
That isn’t something the Tar Heels have been able to do lately.
UNC is 0-6 against ranked foes in Week 1 since claiming a 31-9 road win at USC to start the 1993 season. Most recently, it sputtered out of the gate against border state rival South Carolina (then ranked No. 6) in 2013, falling to the Gamecocks 27-10 in Columbia.
Three years before that, the Heels suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of No. 21 LSU — also in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff — when they came up six yards short as time expired, losing 30-24.
Even in nationally televised openers against unranked teams, UNC has struggled. Last fall, before going on an 11-game winning streak, Larry Fedora’s group walked away with an “L” against South Carolina in Charlotte after three red-zone turnovers made the difference.
Against Georgia, the Tar Heels have a shot to shake away those struggles.
That type of victory would be huge for Fedora, who is 2-7 vs. Top 25 teams since he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2012. But it won’t be easy.
At ACC Media Days last week, the UNC head man discussed the challenges of game-planning for an opponent with a new coaching staff. He said that preparation will include studying film of Smart’s defenses at Alabama, where he was defensive coordinator the last eight years, and film of Pitt’s offense, which last season was led by coordinator Jim Chaney, now the Bulldogs’ coordinator.
Not only is North Carolina getting a curve ball in terms of the opposing coaches, but it could be facing a quarterback who’s playing his first collegiate game. A consensus top-two signal-caller in the 2016 recruiting class, Jacob Eason is in contention for Georgia’s starting job under center after playing well throughout his first spring in Athens.
Perhaps the most important battle in this meeting, however, will be UGA’s ground attack against a UNC defense that had its fair share of troubles stopping the run in 2015. The Bulldogs have two of the better running backs in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but the availability of those ball-carriers is still a question; Chubb hasn’t been a full participant since tearing his ACL last season, and Michel underwent surgery for a broken arm earlier this month.
The health of Chubb and Michel will be a significant factor, as will the Tar Heels’ ability to click on offense early. Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be getting his first career start, and he’ll be surrounded by proven weapons, including All-ACC running back Elijah Hood and senior receivers Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard.
Whether the Bulldogs are at full strength or not, this is a game in which UNC can make its presence felt on the national stage. A win would not only show that the Heels can get the job done against a quality team in an opener, but would be a sign that Carolina is a contender in college football in 2016.