NC State and North Carolina meet Friday night in roles that, based on preseason prognostications, were supposed to be reversed. The Tar Heels were picked in the preseason to win the Coastal Division and got 16 votes to win the ACC. NC State was picked second in the Atlantic Division, but only one brave soul picked the Pack to win its division (and the league to go with it!).
This was supposed to be a coronation of a year in Mack Brown’s second run in Chapel Hill, the validation for the hype that’s come in the last couple of seasons. Instead, the Tar Heels only just became bowl eligible last week, and they will need to win not only this game but their bowl game to match their 2020 win total.
Mack walked right into a franchise quarterback in Sam Howell, but while it was fortuitous, the timing wasn’t perfect—the Tar Heels lost a lot of talent last year, and certainly it has hurt them more than anyone wanted to allow during the preseason.
I can’t think about Mack Brown and Sam Howell without thinking about Chuck Amato and Philip Rivers because of the obvious parallels. Both working relationships ended in disappointment for unfortunate roster-related timing. Rivers’ last season was a rebuilding year for the defense, and the team went from 10 wins his junior year to eight as a senior; Howell’s last season comes amongst an offensive rebuild as his team’s defense shows no development at all, and they’re going from eight wins to six and pending.
Howell’s regular-season college career ends Friday—and you can bet he’ll play accordingly—before his move to the NFL. It’s a credit to his talent that UNC’s offense remains an elite concern—the Tar Heels rank fifth nationally in offensive SP+.
A lot of that has to do with Josh Downs, who averages eight grabs and 109 yards per game, and whose father is an NC State alum, and whose recruitment we will not talk about. Downs has had fewer than eight receptions in only one game this season, and he will be a major factor in this game. Funny how things work out, ain’t it.
The noticeable difference is on the ground, where the Heels lost running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who combined for nearly 2400 rushing yards last season. Collectively, and at least in theory, UNC hasn’t fallen off that much, going from 5.8 YPC last year to 5.3 in this one—but this year Sam Howell is the team’s second-leading rusher, which illustrates as much as any thing else how much has changed.
Howell had 35 positive rushing yards as a freshman, ran for 146 yards last year. This season, he has 728 yards rushing. UNC has made a concerted effort to get him involved in the running game in 2021, and I guess you have to admire the ruthlessness of it, deplorable though it is.
This is where NC State’s defense can find its angle, though. State has faced bigger ground-game problems than this one, and UNC’s offensive strengths are easier to isolate than they were last year. There is just a whole lot more on Sam Howell’s shoulders, in other words.
Putting that extra weight on Howell may work for the Tar Heels—it’s worked several times already—but I wouldn’t overlook either that he is worn out. NC State has shown how effective it can be defensively when it doesn’t have to worry about the quarterback running the ball, and getting rid of that early is an essential part of winning this game.