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Cal vs UNC: Previewing the Tar Heel Offense

In which we take a deeper look at an opponent resetting many key positions on the offensive side of the ball

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Stanford vs North Carolina Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Can you describe playing an ACC opponent on the road for your season opener as fortunate? Here goes my best shot at substantiating that claim.

Consider this—the UNC team Cal could have faced this year had the potential to be considerably better. Mitchell Trubisky could have passed on the NFL with dreams of becoming the number-one overall pick and running back Elijah Hood could have followed suit, honoring his initial commitment to stay in school. In this hypothetical scenario, the Bears would have been forced to take on the presumptive top quarterback in college football and face a running back who amassed nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2016.

Alas, Trubisky decided to leave after his junior year and Eljiah Hood made our collective lives easier by moving to the Bay Area to join the Raiders. North Carolina is in what has been described as a full reset with many around college football wondering how far they will fall in the ACC. Most of the questions surrounding the 2017 team have to do with their offense as they are forced to deal with breaking in a new quarterback, running back, and key positions on the offensive line.

2016 Schedule and Results

SB Nation

It isn’t hard to see just how good the Tar Heels were last year. They almost beat a Stanfurd team that beat the Bears by what seemed like 100 points and upset a very highly touted Florida State team. They just missed the top 25 in S&P+ and finished the year averaging 32.3 points per game. If you take a smaller sample size of their 2016 season and look at their first five games, they nearly averaged 40 points per contest. Factor in that those scoring results came against two teams in the S&P+ top 20 and you have an extremely impressive showing out of the gates for the Tar Heels.

In the last four seasons under head coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have finished 44th, 9th, 41st, and 44th in points per game. If you were to take a guess where they might finish this year, you’d be silly to drop them out of the top 80. The product that Fedora has generated in his tenure at Carolina has been as consistent as you can be on offense.

What the Tar Heels Lost

So much production. As a warning, the numbers are not easy to stomach if you are a North Carolina fan. Here goes nothing:

The Tar Heels lost their top two receivers in Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards receiving in 2016 and 14 touchdowns. They also lost over 3,500 passing yards and Trubisky’s Jared Goff–like touchdown-to-interception ratio (5:1). Finally you add in the loss of Eljiah Hood and his 5.9 yards per carry AND backup T.J. Logan’s 650 yards and seven touchdowns. That is a ridiculous amount of talent to lose on the offensive side of the ball and we haven’t even mentioned the offensive line turnover.

Welcome newcomers

By all accounts, we should see a familiar face at the quarterback position come Saturday. LSU transfer Brandon Harris comes to the Tar Heels with a decent amount of fanfare. The issue for Harris is that he wasn’t ever that impressive with the Tigers, struggling even when most defenses were focused on stopping Leonard Fournette. North Carolina will certainly miss Trubisky’s accuracy as even at Harris’s best he completed roughly 50% of his passes with a high propensity for turnovers.

The Tar Heels are also welcoming newcomers in center Cameron Dillard from the Florida Gators and center Khaliel Rodgers. Add in Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt at running back and you have a lot of new faces to get familiar with.

What to expect Saturday?

By most accounts, including those fancy folks in Vegas, this is UNC’s game to lose. Vegas has the Tar Heels as a double digit favorite and SB Nation lists their win probability at 63%. Vegas seems to placing the bet that Cal, breaking in a new quarterback of their own, will struggle with the early game time and facing a Power Five opponent fresh out of the gates.

I am not buying it. The Tar Heels are resetting far too much on the offensive side of the ball to steam roll their way to a 14-point victory for my taste. The Bears come into this match-up with the upper hand given their years of experience across many positions defensively and the talented coaching staff they brought in during the fall. Expect James Looney, Evan Weaver, Russell Ude, and Cameron Saffle to give Brandon Harris nightmares early and force him into his old bad habits. The Bears have strong linebackers in pass coverage and the Tar Heels are breaking in a brand new running back, who at best will have 35 carries of game experience—advantage Cal.

This game has the makeup of an offensive struggle with both teams trying to figure out the opponents offensive identity. The game should most likely come down to the turnover margin (as it often does) and just how well Cal’s defense has improved from the Sonny Dykes era.


How many points will the Tar Heels score on the Golden Bears’ defense?

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  • 4%
    (18 votes)
  • 21%
    (81 votes)
  • 57%
    (219 votes)
  • 14%
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    (8 votes)
382 votes total Vote Now