Top 10 Tar Heels face test against Hokies

UNC moved up to No. 8 in this week’s AP poll, but coach Mack Brown says his team has plenty to prove to earn that ranking

While UNC’s offense carried Mack Brown’s team last year, it’s the Tar Heels defense that has led the way through two games in 2020. (Photo by John Quackenbos / courtesy of the ACC)

According to the Associated Press college football poll, North Carolina is the eighth-best team in the country.

It’s a ranking Mack Brown takes as a compliment and is a source of excitement for his players, even though the Hall of Fame coach admits that the honor isn’t really deserved.

At least, not yet.

“I’m happy that we’re in the top 10, (but) understanding that early rankings don’t make any difference and I told them that,” Brown said of his players during a Zoom call with the media on Monday. “I said, ‘The good thing for you is people have given you the respect they feel like you should be there, the tough thing is you’ve got to earn it to stay.’ That’s very, very important going forward.”

The last time the Tar Heels (2-0, 2-0 ACC) climbed higher than No. 8 in the rankings was in 1998. They rose to No. 7 after winning the Gator Bowl, their first game under Carl Torbush after Brown announced he was leaving for Texas.

The opponent that day was Virginia Tech, the same team that stands in UNC’s way of rising further in this year’s poll.

The 19th-ranked Hokies (2-0, 2-0) are off to an impressive start that has seen them win their first two games despite playing with a COVID-19-depleted roster. They’re also a team that has a healthy dislike for UNC.

Tech hasn’t forgiven the Tar Heels for spoiling former coach Frank Beamer’s farewell game in Blacksburg in 2015 — the last time UNC was ranked as high as eighth in the national polls.

The Hokies have won the last four meetings between the (under normal circumstances) Coastal Division rivals, including last year’s epic six-overtime battle.

With 20 or more players coming out of quarantine or contact tracing and its roster nearly back to full strength, Tech will be the most formidable challenge of the young season by far for Brown and his highly touted team.

“They should be a top-10 team,” the UNC coach said of the Hokies. “They’re really good. They’re 2-0 and they’ve had a lot of people out. They are really underrated and that shows you the fallacy of early-season rankings, in my estimation.”

National rankings aren’t the only numbers that can be misleading during the first few weeks of a new season — especially one as unusual as this one.

Case in point is UNC’s No. 1 ranking among FBS programs in rushing defense through two games after holding Syracuse and Boston College to an average of just 54 yards on the ground per game.

“The first two opponents we’ve had, Syracuse had a rebuilt offensive line and two backs that opted out and, secondly, Boston College didn’t try to run it,’ Brown said. ‘I think they had nine rushes and we had some sacks.”

The Tar Heels will get a more accurate read on how well they defend the run this week against Tech, a team that rushed for 254 yards against them last year.

The Hokies have been just as good on the ground to start this season, churning out 314 yards against NC State two weeks ago before following that up by running for 324 more last Saturday at Duke.

Khalil Herbert, a transfer from Kansas, had 208 yards all by himself against the Blue Devils and is averaging 12 yards per carry. That’s 10 more yards per carry than UNC’s defense has allowed.

“I think our big test against the run is going to be Saturday for the first time,” Brown said. “I think it’s obvious what Virginia Tech’s going to do. For two weeks, they’ve rushed for over 300 yards. If you rush for over 300 yards, you’re usually going to win the game.”

While Tech’s offense is already in midseason form, the UNC attack that carried the team in Brown’s return to Chapel Hill in 2019 has stumbled out of the gate.

Quarterback Sam Howell, touted as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate before the season, has yet to complete a pass more than 20 yards downfield and has thrown as many interceptions (three) as touchdowns through the first two games.

The Tar Heels are also minus-three in turnover margin and are averaging more than 90 yards in penalties per game.

Though concerned, Brown isn’t panicking over his offense’s slow start. He’s chalked up some of the dysfunction to the two-week gap in the Tar Heels’ schedule caused by the cancellation of a nonconference game against Charlotte.

He said he’s expecting to see a much more fluid performance now that his team has finally settled into something resembling a normal routine.

“Usually we improve most from our first week to our second week,” Brown said. “So this should be like our second week.”