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UNC Opponent Preview: Georgia

No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Georgia kick off the 2016 season at the Georgia Dome on Saturday (5:30pm/ESPN).

Series Record: Georgia leads, 16-12-2
Last Five Games: Georgia leads, 4-1 (Last meeting in 1971)

Getting to Know the Bulldogs

Georgia enters the 2016 season hoping for a new beginning. The momentum of a 4-1 start to the 2015 season was halted by the injury of the Bulldogs’ star running back Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs finished the season 10-3 (5-3 SEC), but never truly recovered from his injury at Tennessee. Following the conclusion of last season, Georgia parted ways with long-time coach Mark Richt, who was replaced by a former Bulldog in Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Despite the new coaching staff, the Bulldogs return a lot of familiarity as Smart inherits a team with 14 returning starters (8 on offense, 6 on defense). It’s rarely, if ever, a question of talent for the Bulldogs.

Offense

Georgia relied heavily on a run-dominant offense last year, and that’s likely to remain the same even with a new offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney. Junior Nick Chubb is expected to be the Bulldogs’ primary tailback on Saturday. There have been questions about Chubb’s status for the season opener after suffering several tears in his left knee last October, but Smart confirmed on Monday that Chubb will play, thereby tasking UNC with accounting for a tailback who rushed for 1,547 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014 and compiling another 747 yards and eight touchdowns in just six games last year.

There is a hole behind Chubb in the depth chart, though, with running back Sony Michel’s status in question. Michel broke his left forearm in an ATV accident in July. Michel rushed for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns in Chubb’s place last season. Senior Brendan Douglas is currently listed as a co-starter with Chubb in the school’s official depth chart.

The biggest uncertainty for Chaney heading into the Georgia Dome centers on the quarterback position. Smart has yet to name a starter, although the battle is down to a pair of contenders. The experienced option senior Greyson Lambert, who UNC followers remember from his stint at Virginia. Lambert started 12 games for the Bulldogs in 2015, completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,959 yards and 12 touchdowns. Lambert, who has been criticized for his inability to throw the deep ball, is the safe pick with a limited upside. The other man aiming for the starting quarterback gig is true freshman Jacob Eason, who is a 6-foot-6, pro-style quarterback ranked as one of the top signal callers in the 2016 recruiting class. As the season gets closer, Eason is reportedly getting more first-team snaps than Lambert, but no official decision has been announced.

Whoever wins the quarterback job will be handing the ball off quite a bit, but when they are forced to throw, they will have two experienced receivers to target. Sophomore Terry Godwin will be the Bulldog’s No. 1 option at receiver. Godwin caught 35 passes for 379 yards and scored three touchdowns in his freshman year in 2015. Junior Isaiah McKenzie will see a large chunk of playing time on Saturday, as he now steps into a primary role at receiver for the Bulldogs. While McKenzie hasn’t broken out at receiver yet, he’s shown off his impressive speed as a kick return and running option for the Bulldogs over the past two seasons.

Defense

Smart enters Georgia with one of the most impressive defensive pedigrees in college football. The 40-year old helped run Alabama’s defense alongside head coach Nick Saban for eight years, resulting in four national championships. Now without Saban, and without some of the once-in-a-decade talent he had at Alabama, Smart has to depend on his own coaching skills. Still, though, the rookie head coach is one of the best defensive tacticians in the game and has inherited a load of talent within the Bulldogs’ defense.

The one critique of Smart’s defensive philosophy is that it leaves the defense prone to the spread offense. During his last few years in Tuscaloosa, Smart’s defense adjusted and became more aware of the ever-shifting landscape of college football to the spread style. With this Georgia team, it will likely be the run defense, not the secondary, that will see the most improvement from Smart’s arrival. Last season, the Bulldogs gave up an average of 305 yards a game, nearly half of which came on the ground (149).

Georgia’s secondary returns a wealth of talent in cornerbacks Malkom Parrish and Aaron Davis and safeties Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders. The group’s standout is Sanders, who intercepted six passes last year and returned one for a touchdown. The experience of the secondary will aide the Bulldogs against UNC’s veteran and explosive wide receiver corps.

In regards to Smart’s front seven, the player who may cause the most trouble for UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky is junior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter. Carter is stepping into a starting role this season for the first time in his career. Over the past two seasons, Carter has accumulated 29 tackles and 4.5 sacks. With Smart’s history of impactful outside linebackers, it may be Carter who has the biggest opportunity to shine against UNC.

Notable Quotes

"We're going to see how it goes. First thing we have to do is figure out who's taking the first snap before we worry about the next guy coming in. I think it'll reveal itself the next couple of days. Continue getting those guys reps and get both of them ready to play -- that's the plan." - Smart on the possibility of playing two quarterbacks

“We do have a little bit of carryover from there with what we’re studying. He’s got a new offensive line coach with him, but they’ve been together before in the SEC. So there’s a little bit of catch-me-if-you-can, a little bit of guesswork there... For us, we do have a little bit of an idea.” - UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik on preparing for Chaney

Matchup to Watch

UGA’s Quarterbacks vs UNC’s Secondary
UNC’s secondary will be chomping at the bit regardless of whether Eason or Lambert starts on Saturday. The Tar Heels’ secondary, which includes All-ACC preseason candidates Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart, will likely have an advantage either way. UNC ranked 12th nationally in pass defense efficiency (109.8) and 18th in passing yards allowed (188.6) in 2015 and returns all four starters. Eason, who is the likely starter at this point, is a highly-touted true freshman who has yet to prove himself on any collegiate stage, especially one as big as the Georgia Dome. UNC has spent the offseason addressing its run defense woes from last season, and if the Tar Heels succeed in containing the run, Eason will face arguably his toughest test of the season against UNC’s experienced secondary.


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