Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. Georgia Tech

UNC and Georgia Tech will kick off at 3:30pm (ESPNU) at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s potential path to its first-ever Coastal Division crown and accompanying ACC championship game appearance begins in Atlanta on Saturday.

Rarely has that particular road been as inviting as it appears to be in 2015. Preseason Coastal Division favorites Georgia Tech (2-2) and Virginia Tech (2-2) have struggled through the first third of their schedules, due in part to a significant injury toll.

The Yellow Jackets have lost five running backs to injury dating back to spring practice, including senior A-back Broderick Snoddy, who was listed as out for Saturday’s game in the school’s injury report on Thursday. The Hokies lost starting quarterback Michael Brewer for 4-8 weeks in their season-opening loss to Ohio State, and All-America cornerback Kendall Fuller underwent season-ending knee surgery on Tuesday.

There is currently not a ranked team within the Coastal Division, and UNC (3-1) caught a scheduling break by drawing Wake Forest out of the Atlantic Division in addition to partner school N.C. State.

In other words, the table is set for the Tar Heels to challenge for their first ACC championship in football since 1980.

First up is Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium, a location where UNC has not won since 1997. The Yellow Jackets, a seven-point favorite on Saturday, have won eight straight home games over the Tar Heels and 14 of the last 17 overall.

The scoreboard has been put to work during the past five meetings. The combined scoring average over that stretch is 74.8 points per game. UNC won 48-43 at Kenan Stadium last October.

Georgia Tech’s injury situation at running back compounds existing issues within Paul Johnson’s multifaceted rushing attack. Johnson said his offense missed more than 70 assignments – the most since his time as Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator in 1985 – in a 30-22 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 19. Last week, Duke held the Yellow Jackets to 173 rushing yards on 60 carries, good for a 2.88 yards-per-carry average, in its 34-20 victory.

That’s good news for a UNC defense ranked last in the ACC and 113th nationally in rushing defense (228.8 ypg).

“They’re always one of the top rushing teams in the country,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “And so we understand that. We understand the task at hand, and our guys understand that we need improvement in that area more than anything right now defensively.”

The Tar Heels have been stout where it matters most, holding opponents to 14.8 points per game (T-16th).

Due to the unique nature of Johnson’s offense, former UNC defensive coordinator Vic Koenning instituted a weekly Sunday prep period for Georgia Tech last season. Gene Chizik kept that approach in place, dedicating anywhere from 10-30 minutes each week to keep his players fresh on what they will have to defend in Atlanta.

Chizik has stressed assignment discipline and physicality during game prep this week.

“We talk all week about where are your eyes?” Chizik said. “What are you looking at? What are you seeing? What are the keys? Every offense is going to give you an idea of what they’re doing if your eyes are correct, so eye discipline is a huge part of this.

“Again, we’ve been talking through this for a long time about if we’re going to play successfully then it’s going to be about our eyes, placing our eyes in the right spot and being in the right spot.”

Both defenses have improved since last season’s shootout in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels rank 42nd nationally in total defense (342.3 ypg), while Georgia Tech ranks 30th (314.0 ypg).

UNC’s offense has been explosive since its season-opening loss to South Carolina, averaging 47.3 points per game over its last three outings. That doesn’t mean the Tar Heels have avoided some controversy along the way.

Starting quarterback Marquise Williams (57-of-87 passing, 711 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) was benched in favor of backup Mitch Trubiksy in the second quarter of last Saturday’s 41-14 win over Delaware. Trubisky set a single-game school record with a 282 quarterback efficiency rating after completing 17 of his 20 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns.

Fedora reiterated on Monday that Williams was his starting quarterback, and said later in the week that he did not anticipate giving Trubisky a scripted set of plays entering the game.

A win on Saturday would move the Tar Heels to 4-1 on the season, and more importantly, 1-0 in the ACC with a critical road win in hand. UNC has been tasked with playing from behind for the better part of this millennium in losing 13 of its last 14 ACC openers.

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