Tar Heels take high expectations to Blacksburg

No. 10 UNC faces a tough opener against Virginia Tech

Quarterback Sam Howell and UNC head to Blacksburg for a early-season test against Virginia Tech on Friday. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Expectations have never been higher for North Carolina football. The Tar Heels are coming off their first Orange Bowl appearance and open the season at No. 10 in the country and the preseason pick to face Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Carolina is led by quarterback Sam Howell, who is on the short list of favorites for the Heisman Trophy this season.

Before the Tar Heels collect their awards and accolades or start looking for a location to erect the statues, however, they need to get past their season opener in Lane Stadium against Virginia Tech.

“Opening games are really, really tricky,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “This is my 33rd one, and you, as a head coach, have to make a lot of decisions. How much do you run? How much do you hit? How much do you stay out in the sun? You’ve got a night ballgame, it’ll be half-light and half-dark with a 6 o’clock starting time.”

It will also be in one of the toughest venues in the ACC, with a full house in Blacksburg that wants nothing better than to knock off the high-flying Heels before their season even gets on track.

“Unlike some people, I love going to stadiums that are full and have passionate fans like Virginia Tech,” Brown said. “Especially after last year, our young people didn’t get to experience full stadiums, and that’s just not the way college football is. … Virginia Tech’s got the great opening, they’ve got the tremendous fans and it’s a fun place to play. A challenging place to play, but it’s a fun challenge.”

Florida State was a fun, challenging place to play last year, and the Tar Heels traveled to Tallahassee as the No. 5 team in the nation only to suffer an upset loss to the Seminoles. Brown and the Heels will look to avoid a similar fate in Blacksburg.

It won’t be easy. Like Florida State, Virginia Tech has a long history of winning and will want to serve as gatekeeper for an up-and-coming ACC contender like Carolina. The Hokies return seven starters on offense behind new starting quarterback Braxton Burmeister, a former Oregon Duck who spent last season as the Hokies’ backup.

“I think they do a really good job, probably as good a job as anybody we play, of creating conflict in the run game,” said UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. “They’re committed to running the quarterback, and I think they’ve got a really talented kid running it.”

The Tar Heels will look to stop Tech’s offense with a deep but young defensive front. Carolina played several freshman defensive linemen last season to create experience heading into this year. Jeremiah Gemmel anchors a linebacker unit that lost Chazz Surratt to the NFL, and the Heels have an experienced group in the secondary.

On the other side of the ball, Howell will be facing a battle-tested Virginia Tech secondary and an all-conference candidate in linebacker Dax Hollifield. The Hokies defense struggled at times last year, but it should be improved in 2021.

The Tar Heels got a glimpse of 2021 in the Orange Bowl, playing without explosive playmakers Michael Carter, Javonte Williams and Dyami Brown, who all sat out the bowl to prepare for the NFL.

The Heels are still shallow at running back without the tandem of Carter and Williams, but Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler is expected to handle the bulk of the carries. Freshman Caleb Hood is also expected to contribute, along with the group that struggled to move the ball in the bowl game.

At receiver, the Heels will also be down another playmaker as returning starter Beau Corrales has been ruled out for the opener.

Receiver Khafre Brown and starting offensive lineman Brian Anderson have struggled with injuries in the preseason, although UNC said both have been practicing and are expected to play at Virginia Tech.

With a reduced number of weapons on offense, Howell will get the chance to show he’s Heisman-worthy by taking on a heavier share of the offense. Brown is willing to live with that.

“I thought to myself very honestly, if we could take Sam and Jeremiah Gemmel or Tomon Fox, and leave me and coach (Phil) Longo and coach Bateman here, they can coach the team. They know enough. They’ve got respect of the guys. ‘Go, we’ll watch it on TV.’”

Of course, with a possible season for the ages at stake, the coaching staff plans to make the trip. Now the only question is what the mood will be on the trip back to Chapel Hill.

“They were fifth in the country last year going to Florida State and laid an egg and stunk,” Brown said. “So they get it, they know that. They understand now that we went from fifth to 25th in 3 hours and 15 minutes. It didn’t take us long to get kicked out. So ol’ No. 10, if we leave Blacksburg on that bus disappointed, ol’ No. 10 is gonna die, and it’ll drop to 25 really fast.”