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Georgia Tech Football: 2015 Opponent Preview - North Carolina

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Can the Yellow Jackets' defense make the necessary adjustments to better contain a potent North Carolina offense?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia Tech returns home from a two-game road trip for a match up against North Carolina, looking to avenge a 2014 loss that broke a 5-game winning streak for Paul Johnson over the Tar Heels. After three seasons of worsening records (8-4, 7-6, 6-7), Larry Fedora finds himself in a tough spot -- looking to improve his standing with the program, while also preparing to fend off more academic-related sanctions that are coming to the program in the near future.

What to Watch For:

Last year's game saw perhaps the strangest moment of the season for Georgia Tech fans. The Jackets got the ball on their own 13, down 42-37 with 5:24 to play. After approaching midfield in only 5 plays, a clipping call sent the Jackets back to their own 25 yard line. The next play went like this:

I call it the strangest moment of the season for Jacket fans, because as exciting as a 75-yard touchdown run on a reverse is, many fans groaned a bit to themselves when they looked down and saw a little over 3 minutes left on the clock. On North Carolina's previous possession, Georgia Tech's defense got its first stop of the second half, and only its second since the Tar Heels' first two possessions. The game was a good, old-fashioned shootout, and 3 minutes were far, far too many for a defense that had struggled mightily in the game. Sure enough, the Tar Heels went 75 yards in 12 plays, scoring a touchdown with 11 seconds left in the game.

That's the setup for this year's game. Well, maybe not so much this game as the entire season for North Carolina. In Fedora's tenure, the Tar Heels have always been dangerous on offense and anemic on defense. This year, they bring in the National Championship-winning former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to be their defensive coordinator and hopefully get something more out of a unit that has plenty of talent and basically zero results to show for it.

They bring back almost all of their starters on both sides of the ball, with the biggest need for replacement being at a couple of linebacker positions -- other than that, most everyone is back. If the offense is as good as it was (for the most part) last season and the defense is even passable (after giving up no less than 20 points in any game and giving up 40 points or more six times last year), this is likely a tougher game than a lot of Georgia Tech fans will want to give it credit for being.

Who to Watch For:

QB Marquise Williams

You know how Georgia Tech fans usually feel slighted for how little attention the team gets from the media, even when there are very attention-worthy players available? Yeah, well I'd imagine it's a similar feeling for UNC fans regarding Williams. The second team All-ACC selection in 2014 (behind only Florida State's Jameis Winston) was second in the conference in total offense last year, passing for over 3,000 yards and rushing for nearly 800 more. Between passing and rushing, he was responsible for 34 touchdowns, and he actually caught a 23-yard pass against Notre Dame to make it 35 total touchdowns on the season.

Williams threw for 390 yards and 4 TD's against Georgia Tech last year, adding 73 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground in 16 carries. That type of performance would be enough to win a lot of games, as it was in Chapel Hill last year.

RB T.J. Logan

The Tar Heels' feature back only got 119 carries in 2014, but turned them into 582 yards (4.89 ypc) and 3 touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes for 144 yards, giving the Tar Heels a credible pass-catching threat out of the backfield -- a very tough element for a defense to prepare for. The former four-star recruit out of Greensboro, NC will have to fend off Romar Morris and Elijah Hood for his share of carries this fall, but his speed and balance make Logan a very difficult running back to contain. He led the team against Georgia Tech with 75 yards and a rushing touchdown, adding 5 receptions for 31 yards.

WR Ryan Switzer

The Tar Heels' leading receiver from a year and a third-team All-ACC wide receiver (as well as honorable mention specialist), Switzer is one of the ACC's most infuriating players for an opposing fan to watch, as I see it. At only 5'10", 185 pounds, his speed and quickness make him extremely hard to corner and take down. It's the reason that he had 5 punt return TD's in 2013 and 136 yards and 2 TD's on only 9 catches in the game against Georgia Tech a year ago. He's the type of receiver that defensive coordinators need to specifically plan for, and who will beat you if given the opportunity to do so. Georgia Tech's D.J. White will have his hands full attempting to cover Switzer in this game.

DE Junior Gnonkonde

The former Georgia Tech commit had his offer revoked shortly before National Signing Day due to failure to meet some academic benchmarks in the fall of his senior year, and landed with the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. (Insert UNC academics-related joke here.) After redshirting as a true freshman, Gnonkonde is perhaps the Heels' best returning defensive lineman going into his junior season. He had a season-high 7 tackles and his only sack of the season against the Yellow Jackets in 2014, no doubt feeding off of some extra motivation. He's primarily a pass-rushing threat, but there's no telling what he might be capable of in a game against Georgia Tech.

What to Expect:

Take a look at the recent history of this series:

Year Georgia Tech North Carolina Location
2014 43 48 Chapel Hill
2013 28 20 Atlanta
2012 68 50 Chapel Hill
2011 35 28 Atlanta

For whatever reason, it's Chapel Hill where the scores really tend to get out of control. (My probability and statistics teachers would probably want to retroactively fail me for making statements that might suggest correlation equals causation in this particular case.)

Georgia Tech has had a lot of success in the series during the Paul Johnson era, but rarely has the game been a total blowout -- they're usually pretty close games, within one possession. This year's game I would expect to be similar, with the scoreboard at the end of the game largely hinging on whether the Yellow Jackets' defense can make adjustments from 2014.

Best-Case Scenario for UNC

The Tar Heels pick up where they left off in 2014's version of this contest, experiencing very little resistance from Georgia Tech's defense. The Yellow Jackets are unable to make more than a few isolated stops, and the Jackets' only hope for victory is in another shootout.

Worst-Case Scenario for UNC

The Tar Heels come out overconfident after putting up nearly 600 yards against Georgia Tech in 2014 and rolling through their early-season schedule. They start conference play with a few turnovers, leading to easy scores for the home team. The crowd is in the game from start to finish, and the Tar Heels never really get into rhythm on offense.

Prediction:

Georgia Tech's defense learns a lot from watching the previous year's film and keeps the scoring to a more normal level, in line with recent editions of this game that have been played in Atlanta. The Jackets' offense has struggled a bit to this point in the season but looks better against a weak defensive unit. They win, but in another close one.

Georgia Tech 34, UNC 31