It has been nearly a quarter-century since North Carolina’s football team has received this kind of attention entering a season.
That ought to have the 10th-ranked Tar Heels motivated, and it figures to have Virginia Tech on full alert when the teams collide Friday night in Blacksburg, Va.
North Carolina’s stock has risen largely because of last season’s Orange Bowl appearance and the presence of third-year quarterback Sam Howell, who has made lists as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I know we should be in the Top 10, or higher,” North Carolina wide receiver Emery Simmons said. “But I just think our main focus now is — we’ve got so many non-believers that don’t believe in us that we should be there — so we’re trying to keep our head down and work.”
This opener is an Atlantic Coast Conference game between Coastal Division rivals. North Carolina is the preseason pick to win the division.
Last year in Chapel Hill, N.C., the teams met in early October with both clubs holding national rankings. The Tar Heels won 56-45, racking up 656 yards of total offense with a crowd limited to 7 percent of stadium capacity because of the pandemic.
This time there’s bound to be a different atmosphere at usually raucous Lane Stadium.
“We’re going to a hostile place that’s a very well-coached football team that doesn’t like us very much and has a circle around our head,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “So get better. Quit talking about how good you are and continue to get better.”
Brown is entering his third season since returning to the helm of the Tar Heels. He coached the program to prominence through the late 1990s before heading to Texas.
This marks North Carolina’s highest preseason ranking in 24 years — when Brown was coach for a 1997 team that was undefeated going into a November showdown with Florida State.
It’s not so rosy for Virginia Tech after last year’s 5-6 record, ending a string of 27 consecutive years of bowl appearances. The Hokies lost five of their last seven games.
A better offseason has improved the outlook.
“I feel great about where we’re at and what’s in front of us,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said.
Fuente is in his sixth season in charge of the Hokies, and an upgrade in results is bound to be required to secure his future with the team.
“We’ve got some guys who have made some physical strides that may give them the opportunity to help us from a depth standpoint,” Fuente said. “But they’re going to have to do that on the field before I feel better about it.”
The Hokies haven’t fared well against highly ranked teams in season openers. They’re 0-9 in openers vs. Top 10 opponents, most recently a 2015 loss to No. 1 Ohio State.
The Tar Heels and Hokies have played memorable games in Blacksburg, including Virginia Tech’s six-overtime 43-41 victory two years ago at home. In the Tar Heels’ 2015 visit, they upended Virginia Tech in overtime in legendary coach Frank Beamer’s final home game.
Virginia Tech is 6-3 at home in the series.
North Carolina’s 8-4 record last year came with upset losses at Florida State and Virginia. The mark also included a defeat to Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, which was played without standout North Carolina running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter because they opted out of the game.
Replenishing the backfield behind Howell has been one of the objectives for the Tar Heels. Some of that figures to come with the addition of Ty Chandler, who transferred from Tennessee.
Howell’s 68 touchdown throws are the most in ACC history for a player through two seasons.
–Field Level Media