The 2021 college football season is finally here. For the first time since late 2019, Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, will be jam-packed full of screaming Virginia Tech fans. Earlier this week, Virginia Tech officially announced a sellout.
The Hokies generally open the season with a big game. This year, it’s no different as the No. 10 North Carolina Tar Heels come to Blacksburg for what’s going to be a tone-setting game for the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Virginia Tech seemingly always opens the season with a big game, and this year it’s no different. These aren’t your typical Tar Heels led by, arguably, the best quarterback in the country in Sam Howell.
When: Friday, Sept. 3
Time: 6:00 p.m. EDT
Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Virginia
Odds: North Carolina is currently a 5.5-point favorite, per BetMGM
Virginia Tech leads the all-time series, 24-13-6. The series dates back to 1895, when the Tar Heels defeated the Hokies, 32-5, in Charlotte.
After playing semi-regularly until the 1940s, unbelievably, the two teams went over 52 years without meeting on the football field. That’s hard to believe.
The two became ACC rivals in 2004 when the Hokies joined the ACC and have played every year since. Since becoming ACC foes, the Hokies lead the series, 13-4. UNC won last season’s meeting in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels were certainly the better team in 2020, but it was also when the Hokies were missing multiple players due to COVID-19.
The most memorable recent meeting was in Blacksburg in 2019. The game went into six overtimes, with the Hokies winning, 43-41. Lane Stadium was as electric as it had been in years for VT’s big win.
Are they rivals?
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente was asked about the series with North Carolina this week. Fuente admitted the two schools had played some great games, with the Hokies coming out on top in most of them, but he doesn’t necessarily see them as rivals. He calls UVa the Hokies’ main rival.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente: Is UNC a rivalry? "There's been closely contested battles, Tech has come out on top a majority of those times", kids know each other, "it gets you excited to go play in the game", our rival is Virginia, but we've played some entertaining games— michaelniziolek (@michaelniziolek) August 30, 2021
Ok, did anyone notice how Fuente made sure to mention the Hokies have won most of them?
You better believe that was intentional. And I love it.
If you ask fans, there is a genuine hatred for North Carolina. I think most fans would say UNC is a rival. The Hokies have dominated both schools on the gridiron, but the Tar Heels are trending upward in the new regime.
When North Carolina has the ball
It’s all about Sam Howell. He is a surefire future top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. However, North Carolina lost its top four skill players from one year ago. Running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome were all selected in the 2021 NFL draft.
Fortunately for UNC, it does return several talented receivers; they’re just mostly young players. North Carolina will be without projected top receiver Beau Corrales.
One receiver to watch is sophomore Khafre Brown. Dyami’s younger brother, Khafre Brown, is poised to be UNC’s next star wideout. Dyami Brown was the first North Carolina wide receiver to go over 1,000 yards in back-to-back years.
Replacing Williams and Carter in the backfield is Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler. Chandler started 26 games and rushed for just over 2,000 yards in 26 career games with the Volunteers. He’s an experienced runner who will step right in. While I don’t think he can necessarily replace the dynamic duo that was Carter and Williams, the Tar Heels couldn’t have found a better choice to fill the position for 2021.
The good news for the Hokies is catching the Tar Heels in Week 1. Sure, you may run into a buzzsaw with a star at quarterback, but you are also facing a team that is replacing four current NFL players.
Tech’s defense should be good as long as no one gets hurt. The starting defensive line is solid with a pair of potential All-ACC performers in DE Amare Barno and DT Jordan Williams.
Virginia Tech’s secondary should provide a solid matchup for UNC’s young wide receivers.
When Virginia Tech has the ball
Braxton Burmeister started the game at UNC for the Hokies last season before being replaced by Hendon Hooker in the second half. This year, the job belongs to Burmeister, and the Hokies believe in dual-threat passer.
Burmeister is an outstanding runner. However, he doesn’t have the size of Hooker or Quincy Patterson. Virginia Tech must be careful not to run Burmeister into the ground. For the Hokies to compete in the ACC, they need a healthy Burmeister.
There is no Khalil Herbert this year in the backfield. Fortunately, the Hokies do have a multitude of capable options, all with different styles. Raheem Blackshear can line up in the slot or out wide. Jalen Holston improved dramatically last season and is expected to start. Keshawn King is the player to watch. He is a potential game-breaker.
James Mitchell is the best tight end in the ACC. The Hokies need him involved on every possession. He’s a star. Tech has plenty of depth at tight end and should use formations with multiple tight ends. Drake Deuliis and Nick Gallo can create mismatches for UNC’s defense.
At wide receiver, the Hokies have an outstanding duo in Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson. We could also see the debuts of Jaden Payoute and Da’Wain Lofton. With Burmeister at quarterback, expect to see more touches for the backs and tight ends.
The Hokies have plenty of firepower on offense. It’s the playcalling and the scheme that raises the most questions.
UNC’s defense returns 10 starters and has a good coordinator in Jay Bateman.
I would expect a close game on Friday night. North Carolina comes into the game with a No. 10 ranking. The Hokies haven’t exactly done well against ranked opponents inside Lane Stadium recently. That needs to change. And can change on Friday.
I won’t give away my prediction as we’ll post our staff predictions on Friday morning.