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Virginia Tech vs. North Carolina: Complete preview & prediction

Tech has won all four meetings since Justin Fuente took over as head coach in 2016.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech
UNC vs. Virginia Tech in 2019
Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 19 Virginia Tech Hokies (2-0) head south to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0) in a pivotal early-season ACC matchup.

The Tar Heels were a preseason media darling due to the presence of sophomore quarterback Sam Howell and second-year head coach Mack Brown. Brown is entering his second year of his second tenure at UNC and has the Tar Heels red-hot on the recruiting trail.

Through their first two games, Carolina has defeated Syracuse and Boston College.

The story of Virginia Tech’s young season is COVID-19 and Khalil Herbert. In the season-opening win over N.C. State, the Hokies were without 23 players and four coaches. In last week’s win over Duke, Tech was without 21 players, including its top four cornerbacks and free safety.

Khalil Herbert has rushed for over 300 yards in Virginia Tech’s first two games.

The Hokies won last year’s meeting in a wild 43-41 six-overtime thriller in Blacksburg.


When, where, TV & odds

When: Saturday, October 10, 2020

Where: Kenan Stadium; Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Time: Noon ET

TV: ABC

Betting odds: UNC is 4.5-point favorites, per BetMGM


Series history

The Hokies and Tar Heels have met 42 times, with Virginia Tech holding a 24-12-6 edge over UNC. Since the Hokies entered the ACC back in 2004, they are 13-3 against the Tar Heels.

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente is 4-0 against UNC during his time at Virginia Tech.

The last time North Carolina beat the Hokies was Frank Beamer’s final home game as Virginia Tech head coach back in 2015. UNC narrowly defeated the Hokies 30-27 in overtime.

Last season’s meeting was one of the more exciting games in series history. The Hokies were boosted by backup quarterback Quincy Patterson’s legs and clutch throws.


When Virginia Tech has the ball

This game will ultimately be decided by Virginia Tech’s rushing offense against North Carolina’s rushing defense. This is the ultimate strength against strength for each team, just from a numbers perspective.

UNC’s rushing defense is ranked No. 1 nationally, allowing opponents to rush for just 54 yards per game and an average of two yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is No. 3 in the nation, averaging 319 yards per game, behind only Army and Air Force.

Tech’s offense is powered by a talented and stout offensive line, led by left tackle Christian Darrisaw and center Brock Hoffman.

Herbert, the senior transfer from Kansas, is having a dream start to his career in Blacksburg. He has rushed for 311 yards and three touchdowns, while also impacting special teams as a kickoff returner.

This game could be the day Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson get Raheem Blackshear more involved in the passing game. The Rutgers transfer has impressed as a runner, but we have yet to see him in space where he could be special.

Who will start at quarterback for the Hokies?

Hendon Hooker will be ready to go, Fuente said as much on Monday. Braxton Burmeister is 2-0 as a starter and has impressed. Hooker would give the passing game more potential while also being a threat as a runner, too. Expect both quarterbacks to see the field on Saturday.

This could be the game Virginia Tech wide receiver Tre Turner breaks out.

The Tar Heels are having issues with their secondary. Academic issues and injuries have hurt UNC’s depth at corner and safety. That is a situation to watch on Saturday.

Linebacker Chazz Surratt is one of the better defensive players in the country. He leads the Tar Heels in tackles and also has three sacks.

Tomon Fox leads UNC with four sacks, but he’ll have his hands full with VT’s offensive tackles.


When North Carolina has the ball

UNC has the potential to be terrific on offense. Howell is one of the nation’s top young quarterbacks, while the Tar Heels have outstanding receivers in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown.

So far this season, Howell has yet to hit his stride. That should concern Hokie fans. He is due for a breakout performance and Virginia Tech’s secondary could be the ideal game for Howell to get going.

The biggest question for the Hokies is who will be playing cornerback? Tech needs Jermaine Waller back, who missed the first two games as he recovered from a foot injury. Armani Chatman, Devin Taylor and Brion Murray are all needed for Virginia Tech.

Another important element of Virginia Tech’s defense is senior safety Divine Deablo. He is the leader and one of the more underrated safeties in America. He was missed last week.

Carolina will frequently split four wide receivers out and force the Hokies to defend them.

Senior running back Michael Carter is having a strong start to the season for the Heels. He has rushed for 199 yards in two games and averaging almost eight yards per rush. He is also a dependable part of the passing game for Howell.

Newsome and Brown are two of the better receivers in the ACC. Virginia Tech knows all about Newsome as his father and brother played for the Hokies. He has only three catches on the season, while Brown leads the Tar Heels with 10 catches.

The key for the Hokies is the defensive line. Tech needs pressure from its front four to win this game.


Prediction

This is tough. Usually, picking against North Carolina is relatively easy. However, this is a different team.

The Tar Heels have plenty of talent on offense and a really strong defensive coordinator in Jay Bateman. Howell will be playing on Sunday’s in two years and is ready for a big game.

Now, we reach the point where we ask is UNC overrated?

I think the answer to that is yes and no. Carolina is somewhat overrated and can’t really be judged by its first two games. But this team is good. This game is a massive challenge for Virginia Tech and we will know a lot more about both of these teams after Saturday.

I think Howell has a big game, going for over 300 yards and multiple scores. I also think Virginia Tech finds room to run the ball and combination of Hooker and Burmeister make several plays and the Hokies pull out a close win on the road.

Virginia Tech 34, UNC 31