Tar Heels experienced, but how good?

GoJackets.com previews Saturday's UNC-Georgia Tech game

North Carolina's prospects against Georgia Tech in Atlanta Saturday depend on which mascot the visiting team decides to represent. Will it be the doughty Tar Heel, an obscure but stubborn warrior from one o' them muzzle-loading wars? Or will it be a fuzzy sheep with baby-blue horns?

Those anticipating Rameses note that super-athlete Darian Durant has been replaced at quarterback by a career second banana, senior Matt Baker. Baker's 1-to-2 touchdown-to-interception record and 15 net rushing yards in six games last year do not inspire a lot of fear. Combine the loss of Durant with the worst defense in the ACC last year, most of whom return, and you might expect Tech to take Carolina lightly.

Those who expect the Tar Heels that laid 31 points on No. 4 Miami and, oh, yeah, 34 on Georgia Tech last year point to nine returning starters on defense. They see that Baker connected on 63 percent of his passes last year, and remember a pathetic backup at Tech named George Godsey. Carolina's stomping of Tech at Kenan Stadium last year turned a promising season into a frustrating one, so the Jackets ought to be psyched for their home opener.

So Carolina is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a greasy fleece. Tech's more in focus, after answering a lot of questions last week. In upsetting Auburn in front of 79,000 of the most polite orange-clad people in America, plus 8,500 giddy visitors, Tech made the following clear: Quarterback Reggie Ball has matured. The young offensive line can block somebody. Tailback P. J. Daniels is healthy, lean and motivated as a Florida State co-ed at a frat kegger.

Idle last weekend, the Tar Heels may as well have question marks for numbers on their jerseys. They got an extra week to prepare for Tech, while the Jackets got live-fire experience and a big confidence boost at Auburn. Advantage: Tech. If Ball remains calm and Baker performs like the first-game starters from Auburn, Florida State and Miami, this one shouldn't be close.

Where they're coming from: Tech's up-and-down 2004 season was a model of consistency compared to Carolina's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Horrible performance. The team that beat Tech and Miami lost by 30 points or more to Virginia, Louisville and Utah. Road wins at Wake and Duke in their last two games (and, oh, I dunno, proximity?) got the 6-5 Tar Heels a Continental Tire Bowl "trip" to Charlotte. They used it as a conference welcome basket for Boston College, losing 37-24.

Tar Heels to watch: Baker completed 23 of 36 passes last year, but his only TD throw was to a running back. He is said to have a stronger arm than Durant, but he will need his veteran offensive line (best in the ACC in 2004 in sacks allowed) to give him time to find his talented wide receivers, led by Jawarski Pollock, a senior who caught 45 passes last year. Running back Barrington Edwards, an LSU transfer, makes his debut because of a season-ending injury to Ronnie McGill. Defensive end Brian Rackley (three sacks last year after earning the starting job halfway through 2004) will test Tech's pass blockers.

Who's hurt: McGill is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Second-team QB Roger Heinz's back surgery means two freshmen and two sophomores will back up Baker. Tech had only one player knocked out (literally) of the Auburn game, cornerback Kenny Scott, and he is expected to return at full speed. Backup wide receiver Xavier McGuire (ankle) did not dress for the Auburn game.

Xs and Os: Carolina head coach John Bunting played musical coaches in the off-season to try to improve the 109th-best (of 119) Div. 1-A defense. Two assistants left for better jobs, two were hired, and five have changed assignments. Ken Browning, who had (oddly) coached tight ends for Carolina the past four years, is back with the defensive tackles, where he developed four first-round NFL picks before Bunting arrived and installed his own guys in 2001. It can only help; the Heels gave up 446.5 yards per game last year, 218.4 on the ground. The Heels want to run a balanced pro-style offense, but DC Jon Tenuta's stingy run defense and constant blitzing will likely force the Heels to use counters, draws, quick slants and screens.

Key matchups: Ball vs. ... Ball. The junior has often followed a big win with a multi-turnover loss. He will need to remain emotionally steady to match his solid performance against Auburn. Tech head coach Chan Gailey will try to pound the Tar Heels with Daniels to keep pressure off his volatile, sometimes brilliant quarterback. Carolina defensive tackle Chase Page, a pro prospect out last year with a hand injury, will test Tech's sophomore guards and center. Tech's linebackers and safeties must stuff Edwards, a highly recruited high school star, to force Baker to carry the offense.

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