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Preview: Virginia Tech @ North Carolina

The Hokies fell to the Tar Heels in the regular season finale in 2015. Is Virginia Tech better equipped to handle them this time around?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels spoiled Frank Beamer’s final home game in Blacksburg last season, staving off a late comeback attempt by the Hokies. For the majority of the game, Virginia Tech looked inferior to the ACC Coastal Division runner-up, until two costly fumbles allowed the game to go to overtime which ended with a Marquise Williams to Quentin Davis touchdown.

Last year is history, however. The fighting gobblers enter the season with a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new system. If the Hokies indeed see themselves as division crown contenders, this will be a game they circle on the schedule. UNC was picked in the preseason polls to repeat as division winners, and as the old adage goes, in order to be the best you have to beat the best.

Head Coach: Larry Fedora

2014/2015 Record: 6-7/11-3

Key Players:

Elijah Hood, RB – The 6’0”, 230-pound senior tailback figures to carry the brunt of the ground game again after slaughtering defenses in 2015. It’s no secret the Hokies have been mediocre against the run over the last few seasons, and that needs to change if Virginia Tech wants to steal one on the road. With all the new pieces in the front seven, the hope is that they have gelled enough to handle the Tar Heels’ run game. Hood posted a 17/115/2 statline against the Hokies last season.

Ryan Switzer, WR – The multidimensional receiver will continue to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. His 2015 stats are deceiving – just 58 receptions for a shade over 700 yards – but stats don’t tell the whole story for Switzer. His speed strikes fear into DBs and keeps safeties from being aggressive in the ground game, which allows Hood to run against lighter boxes. The Hokies actually did an okay job of slowing Switzer down in their last meeting, but doing it twice will be a daunting task. Terrell Edmunds had two plays where he put on a clinic on how to defend the deep ball against Switzer, and the Hokies will surely have watched plenty of film on him when October 8th rolls around. Whoever is Switzer’s matchup will have to play to their help. Otherwise it will be a(nother) long day for the Hokies’ secondary.

What to watch for:

The Tar Heels will mark the 5th game of the season for Virginia Tech (they have a bye week prior to this game). At this point in the season we should have an understanding of how good this team will be. If the Hokies can’t rise to the occasion to compete for four quarters against UNC, I don’t think you can expect this team to win the division. At the same time, a win here would be a monumental confidence boost as the team enters the latter portion of the schedule.

This game will come down to the Hokies’ defense and their ability to stop, or at least slow down, Hood and Switzer. This could be a game where Tim Settle really makes his presence felt by being stout against the run and provide some interior pressure when Mitch Trubisky drops back to pass. Mack Hollins is another guy I haven’t even touched on yet and he’s one of the best wide receivers in the conference along with Isaiah Ford. He has tremendous size, but luckily the Hokies do as well at the outside corner positions with Facyson and Alexander.

On offense, the Hokies should have enough firepower to score points on the Tar Heels. UNC was nearly dead last in the ACC in total defense last season, and they haven’t improved too much on that side of the ball. I would look to #feedTravon, McClease, and Rogers as the Tar Heels’ front seven leaves plenty to be desired. Isaiah Ford burned UNC for over 130 yards last November and he should have a great opportunity to repeat his fantastic performance against what looks to be an underwhelming secondary.

Win or lose, UNC provides a midseason litmus test for Virginia Tech, and how they respond to the challenge against the reigning Coastal champs will say a lot about the character of the team.