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Friday September 24th

Preview: No. 10 UNC football must overcome hostile environment at Virginia Tech

Texas A&M junior wide receiver Hezekiah Jones (9) attempts to catch the ball around UNC's first year defensive back Tony Grimes (20) during the Capital One Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. Texas A&M beat UNC 41-27.
Buy Photos Texas A&M junior wide receiver Hezekiah Jones (9) attempts to catch the ball around UNC's first year defensive back Tony Grimes (20) during the Capital One Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. Texas A&M beat UNC 41-27.

Fans hold up their phones among a sea of maroon and orange, lighting up the Blacksburg night sky. 

The booming sounds from hype videos amp the crowd up more as the Virginia Tech football team casually walks outside from the locker room into Lane Stadium. When they approach the tunnel, adorned with the names of graduated Hokie players, the music stops and all that's heard are spectators screaming, “Let’s go Hokies.”

And then comes “Enter Sandman.”

Fans jump up and down to Metallica's hit song before erupting in elation when their team comes sprinting out of the tunnel.

It’s one of college football’s most well-known entrances. And it’s what the No. 10 North Carolina football team has to deal with before its 2021 season officially starts. 

But this tradition is a known factor. What’s more unknown is what Virginia Tech team the Tar Heels will see on Sept. 3. 

The Hokies had a very disappointing 2020 season, especially on defense. They allowed nearly 450 yards and 32 points per game, including giving up 56 to the Tar Heels in their Oct. 10 matchup. While Virginia Tech returns leading tackler junior Chamarri Conner and a top pass rusher in redshirt junior Amaré Barno, this should be a matchup that favors a talented North Carolina offense led by star junior quarterback Sam Howell. 

The biggest key for the Tar Heels to replicate last year’s offensive success against the Hokies is to get their run game established early. Last year, the now-departed duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams carved up the Hokie defense, totaling 383 combined yards. While this year’s group, led by graduate transfer Ty Chandler, shouldn’t be expected to replicate that stat line, they should be able to find holes against a Virginia Tech defensive front that struggled against the run all last season. 

North Carolina also needs excellent showings from their new starting receivers. 

Sophomore Josh Downs will need to win his matchup against skilled junior corner Jermaine Waller. He has the speed to blow past anyone and the ability to turn short passes into huge gains, but his lack of game reps is a concern considering he only had seven catches last year. 

The offensive line, meanwhile, will have the advantage in experience over their opponent’s defensive line with all five starters being upperclassmen. It should give Howell enough time to throw, putting the burden on Downs and the rest of the receiving corps to get themselves open. 

The UNC defense doesn’t have to worry about Hendon Hooker hurting them on the ground anymore, as the dual-threat quarterback recently transferred to Tennessee. They are expected to face junior quarterback Braxton Burmeister, who struggled against last year’s young Tar Heel secondary. 

Late last season, UNC benefited from the emergence of Tony Grimes, who looks to cement himself as one of the ACC's best cornerbacks in just his sophomore season. Pair him with the now-healthy junior corner Storm Duck and the vastly-improved duo of sophomore Ja’Qurious Conley and junior Kyler McMichael and the Tar Heels will have much-needed depth against a strong group of Virginia Tech receivers. 

The Hokies will field a very different running attack with their two leading rushers leaving the program. Khalil Herbert, who torched the Tar Heels for 138 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s matchup, was selected in the NFL Draft, while Hooker left the program. They will have to rely on a new backfield and a less mobile quarterback, making the ability to stop the passing game that much more crucial. 

This may not be the same Virginia Tech that churned out menacing defenses year after year under former longtime coordinator Bud Foster. This may not be the same Virginia Tech that troubled opposing defenses with standout mobile quarterbacks. This may not be the same Virginia Tech that constantly put themselves in contention for the ACC Championship. 

But “Enter Sandman” still remains, and this Hokie team will be hungry for an upset.

Mack Brown's resurgent Tar Heels will get a test right away. Win, and it gives a younger team the confidence it needs to manage a season as a potential title favorite.

Lose, and the hype around UNC could quickly fade away. 

@ryanheller23

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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