After months of uncertainty over whether the North Carolina football team would have a season at all, UNC is preparing for its first game of the season against Syracuse, slated for Saturday at noon.
The Tar Heels lost to the Orange the last time the teams faced each other, back in October 2018, a 40-37 shootout victory for Syracuse in double overtime. Here are three big themes entering Saturday's matchup.
Continuing last year's success
Nearly two years later, a Tar Heel team that is on the come-up is the favorite against Syracuse this weekend. With their powerful offense — tied for second in the ACC last year scoring 33.1 points per game — and up-and-coming defense led by the likes of redshirt seniors Chazz Surratt and Tomon Fox, the Tar Heels are more than capable of handling business on their home field at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
Last year, UNC was able to manage a 7-6 record, up from only 5 total wins combined in the previous two seasons. Syracuse struggled in 2019, with a 5-7 record, down significantly from its 10-3 mark the year prior.
UNC’s newfound success is due in part to head coach Mack Brown, who returned to replace Larry Fedora on the heels of consecutive losing seasons. Along with a winning record, Brown led his team to its first bowl game appearance in three years, where UNC overpowered Temple in a 55-13 blowout at the Military Bowl, the team's first bowl game win since 2013.
An unusual offseason and an unusual season
UNC's victory in the Military Bowl came only two days after Christmas in 2019. Now, it has been nearly nine months since the Tar Heels have hit the field for a game. Until July 29, when the ACC announced they were moving forward with the football season, North Carolina wasn't sure when it would play again. UNC has 11 games on its schedule for this fall, spread out over a 13-week period, 10 of which are matchups against other ACC teams.
Originally, a matchup with Syracuse wasn't in the cards for UNC, but the move to an all-ACC schedule has the Tar Heels pitted to face off against the Orange.
On Aug. 28, UNC announced that fans will not be allowed at football games until at least October. This decision came following a long debate about how to operate this season during the pandemic. For the first time, UNC football players will play with no fans in the stands to cheer them on, causing an unusual start to an already unusual season.
Young QBs face off
UNC quarterback Sam Howell and Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito both had strong seasons last year. DeVito tied with Ryan Nassib and Donovan McNabb for most touchdowns by a sophomore in Syracuse history with a total of 19. Howell tossed 38 touchdowns during his first-year campaign last year, setting a record for most single-season passing touchdowns in UNC history. Howell found great success as a first-year, playing for a team with a new coaching staff and an air raid offense.
Syracuse’s season wasn't as successful. DeVito admitted in a tweet in January that the 2019 season was not what the team envisioned, and that for the 2020 season, they would be a “New Year, New Team, One Dream.”
On Saturday, the matchup between Howell and DeVito could help determine which team comes out on top in what could be a high-scoring game.
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