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Sneak Peek: The North Carolina Tar Heels

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Once again, Auburn’s P5 out of conference opponent is a program on the rise.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-North Carolina vs Temple Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be taking a quick look at every Auburn opponent on the 2020 schedule.

2019 Record: 7-6 (4-4) - Won Military Bowl

2020 Signing Class: 19th (3rd ACC)

Head Coach: Mack Brown (2nd Season)

Key Departures:

  • OT Charles Heck - 35 starts
  • DE Jason Strowbridge - 44 tackles 6.0 TFL 2.5 sacks PBU 3 FR FF
  • LB Dominique Ross - 60 tackles 6.0 TFL 2.5 sacks INT 5 PBU FF
  • S Myles Dorn - 83 tackles 4.5 TFL 2 INT 6 PBU

Key Returners:

  • QB Sam Howell (So) - 259/422 (61.4%) 3,641 yds 38 TD 7 INT rushing TD
  • RB Michael Carter (Sr) - 177 carries 1,003 yds 5.7 avg 3 TD 21 rec 154 yds 7.3 avg 2 TD
  • RB Javonte Williams (Jr) - 166 carries 933 yds 5.6 avg 5 TD 17 rec 176 yds 10.4 avg TD
  • WR Dazz Newsome (Sr) - 72 rec 1,018 yds 14.1 avg 10 TD
  • WR Dyami Brown (Jr) - 51 rec 1,304 yds 20.3 avg 12 TD
  • DE Tomon Fox (Sr) - 56 tackles 10.0 TFL 7.0 sacks INT 2 FF
  • LB Chazz Surratt (Sr) - 115 tackles 15.0 TFL 6.5 sacks INT 2 PBU FR FF
  • LB Jeremiah Gemmell (Jr) - 84 tackles 7.5 TFL 2.5 sacks 2 PBU FR 3 FF

Preview

Following a disastrous 2018 campaign, UNC showed Larry Fedora the door and invited back Mack Brown. Brown previously served as the Tar Heels head coach from 1988-1997 where he revitalized a floundering UNC program. The move from the announcer booth back to the sidelines for the Tar Heels generated some chuckles from people when it was initially announced but following a strong debut season the move no longer seems so silly.

UNC excelled at playing close games last season. Nine times the final result was less than a touchdown with the Tar Heels winning only three of them. The most notable being their 1 point loss at home to Clemson when a failed 2 point conversion prevented Brown from securing his first signature win of his 2nd tenure. Given the amount of returning production and the closeness of most those losses last season, it’s understandable why a lot of folks in Chapel Hill are feeling optimistic about the 2020 season.

Bo Nix had a strong freshman debut against a brutal schedule but he was not the most impressive freshman QB in 2019. That honor belonged to his former 7 on 7 teammate Sam Howell. Howell was one of Brown’s first big recruiting wins, flipping him from the Noles on Early Signing Day. Howell threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 38 touchdowns. He posted a head turning 9.7 adjusted yards per attempt. That was 10th best in the country last season. For context, Bo finished 72nd at 6.9 AY/A. Pro Football Focus graded Howell’s 2019 season as the 2nd best freshman year they have ever graded.

All of his weapons return in 2020 as well. UNC almost had two 1,000 yard rushers last season in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Both averaged over 5.6 yards a carry and have a chance to be one of the top RB duos in the country this fall.

Auburn’s secondary will face quite the test against this electric wide receiving corps in Atlanta. Both Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown went for over 1,000 yards in 2019. Newsome does his damage out of the slot and tends to operate more in the short and intermediate passing game. Brown is the big play threat on the outside averaging over 20 yards a catch. The Tar Heels are also adding a top 100 prospect from the 2020 class in Josh Downs who could give offensive coordinator Phil Longo another dangerous weapon on the outside.

North Carolina’s defense loses a little more than the offense but still return a number of impact players. The leader is Chazz Surratt, a senior linebacker who lead the team in tackles and tackles for loss last year. He excels attacking downhill in Jay Bateman’s havoc based defensive scheme and will be one of the first major tests for Auburn’s rebuilt offensive line.

Sack leader Tomon Fox returns as well following his 7 sack junior campaign. He’s a weakside outside linebacker with great length and surprising quickness. His biggest performance came in a week 2 win over Miami last year when he compiled 3 sacks. Auburn’s new offensive tackles will need to be ready to handle him off the edge.

From a talent perspective, Auburn is the better team. But the Tar Heels return the majority of their offensive production and plenty of important defensive contributors. They also signed a top 20 class that features three top 150 defensive lineman. Bateman’s defensive scheme can give offenses headaches with its various of fronts and countless number of blitzes. I expect Auburn to win but this will not be a cakewalk for the Tigers.

War Eagle!