When North Carolina decided to open its 2016 season in the Georgia Dome against UGA, the Tar Heels knew they’d be in for a challenge. However, an offseason of change for the Bulldogs has made this particular nonconference matchup even tougher for UNC.
“It’s a lot of unknowns — both on offense and defense,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said on Monday at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl Challenge charity golf tournament before adding, “It’s not so much the players, as what they’re going to do scheme-wise.”
When the game — also known as the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff — between the two schools was originally scheduled in early 2015, Mark Richt was preparing for his 15th season with the Bulldogs, and the UGA program was the picture of stability. However, critics of Richt mounted last year during a season that was largely viewed as a disappointment, ultimately leading to his dismissal.
In Richt’s place is Kirby Smart — who’ll be making his coaching debut against Fedora to start the season.
In other words, what once was among the most consistent and predictable teams in the country has been replaced by a question mark.
One aspect of UGA’s game plan shouldn’t be a complete mystery to Fedora. Smart’s choice for offensive coordinator was Jim Chaney — who led Pitt’s offense last season and lost 26-19 to UNC on Oct. 29.
However, what Fedora doesn’t know is which of UGA’s three quarterbacks — either senior Greyson Lambert, junior Brice Ramsey, or true freshman Jacob Eason — Chaney and Smart will turn to when the season begins on Sept. 3.
“We don’t know who will go, and probably won’t know until the week of the game. We know there’s going to be a quality player when they line up behind center,” Fedora said.
Another mystery for Fedora is the status of UGA running back Nick Chubb — who was a Heisman contender before injuring his knee in October at Tennessee, and spent spring practice trying to work himself back to full health. Yet Fedora is well aware that even if Chubb isn’t ready to play, UGA still has plenty of weapons that can cause his team trouble.
“Nick Chubb is not the only great running back they’ve got. We’ll have to plan for a really good running game.” Fedora said.
Presumably the other running back Fedora is referring to is Sony Michel — who rushed for 1,161 yards last season, and represents one of the few areas of certainty for UGA on offense.
Although UGA provides plenty of reasons to keep the Tar Heels guessing, UNC presents a challenge of its own. The Tar Heels won 11 games last season and gave eventual ACC champion Clemson all it wanted in last season’s conference championship game before finally falling 45-37.
After last season’s success, Fedora is eager to represent his league in this SEC vs. ACC matchup, even if he’s not quite sure what to expect from the team on the other side of the field. He explained that it’s only natural for the two leagues to play each other as much as possible, and they should look into doing it even more than they already do.
In the future that may happen, but for now Fedora’s more pressing issue is getting ready for a UGA team that should be a lot different than the one he initially thought he’d be playing, and one that could be full of surprises on Sept. 3.