Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Football - Georgia Tech / North Carolina Preview

I'm typing this entry from a hotel in Hartford Conn. I had another "celebrity encounter", which I have to say is one of the best I've had. I got upgraded to first class on Delta, and as I'm standing up to get out of my seat, I see that some people are talking to an older african-american gentleman wearing a new black and gray sweatsuit. Then one guy says to him - "So you going to do any half-court hook shots?"...... The man answers "It's like walking for me".......... Yes, you've got it. It's noneother than one of my childhood heroes - Meadowlark Lemon. Just outstanding!!!!! I remember seeing the Harlem Globetrotters back in 1975 in Louisiana with my dad. It was a very fond memory. If they were on TV on a Saturday, you could be sure I was glued to the tube. That was awesome. He was in the same row as me, but on the other aisle. I didn't bug him, but a bunch of other people did as he walked to get his bags.

This adds to my other celebrity encounters, including James Earl Jones, Cher and Kenny Mayne. Now, on to the game.....................

GT - North Carolina Preview

Time to look at Georgia Tech's next opponent, the North Carolina Tarheels.

Carolina finished last season 6-6, losing to Boston College in the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte. But along the way, their season was highlighted by wins over Georgia Tech, NCST and Miami. That's right, Miami. In addition, they almost beat Virginia Tech and played competitivly against FSU. However, they also forgot to show up in blowouts against Virginia, Louisville and Utah. So if you thought Tech was inconsistent, think again.............In a season that started with UNC faithful waiting (and many hoping) for John Bunting to lose his job, it ended with a bowl game and some job security. Folks, Carolina is not a great team, but they're no Duke either. With another .500 season, they could just edge themselves into the middle-muck of the ACC, along with GT, Clemson, UVA, NCST, MD, BC. Well, lets not go that far, but I feel like they will knock off some higher caliber teams once again this season.

Ugly. Not much more you can say. One week after Reggie Ball dazzled Tech fans in Death Valley at Clemson, he layed a major egg at UNC. Unfortunately that was the ugly "pattern" game that has dogged Ball and Coach Gailey since arriving. The Jackets lost 34-13, ending a 6-game winning streak over the Heels. Reggie Ball was picked off 3 times, fumbled on a sack the last play of the game that went for a TD, Calvin Johnson only caught 2 passes, and the offense could only manage 13 points against a defense that had allowed 38 and 56 points in their prior 2 games. Oh, and the 38 points they gave up were to William and Mary. Holy cow........RB Jacque Lewis runs for 161 yards against the vaunted Tenuta defense. But remember, Eric Henderson did not play in that game ....................... Let's also not forget that PJ Daniels went down in the 2nd half and didn't finish that game. He ended with 12 rushes for 52 yards. Heck, the halftime score was 7-6 UNC. And don't forget that UNC's 7 points in the 1st half came on a Reuben Houston fumbled punt inside the 5 yard line that UNC recovered and subsequently put in the endzone. It all really fell apart in the 2nd half.............. However, let's also go back to 2003. Anyone remember how PJ ran in that game? Try 36 rushes for 240 yards. Something tells me PJ is going to be ready for revenge.

STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE says that Georgia Tech and North Carolina are tied with the toughest schedule in the nation. Hard to argue UNC's case, with non-conference games against Louisville, Wisconsin and Utah. Are you kidding me? Of course when they scheduled these games, I think these teams basically were all mediocre at best. Who knew? Throw in road games at GT, at NCST, at VT and at Miami and you have the makings of a 4-7 season.

An additional scheduling oddity makes UNC the last ACC team to play a game. UNC has the advantage of seeing Tech pull out the stops for Auburn. and holds some element of surprise. Tech holds an advantage around experience and seeing where players really are, and they are past the game 1 jitters.

Did you know Jon Tenuta was the Tarheels defensive coord. back in 2001,and they finished 15th nationally in defense, led by some dudes named Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims.......... UNC has 6 players from the state of GA............... The Jackets lead the all-time series 20-17-3........... Do you know who the winningest programs in the ACC are? Try Georgia Tech (630 wins) and UNC (619 wins)........

The worst 2004 defense in the ACC (UNC gave up 31.8 pts/game and 447 yards/game) - and the league's 2nd best offense (391 yards/game). What a bipolar situation. Sounds like the Joe Hamilton years........But the laws of thermodynamics still apply - a system will always want to find balance. In this case, the Tarheel defense will get better and the offense will get worse. At least that's my take. Why?

Wait, is that Jon Tenuta I see? What's wrong with him? It looks like there's foam coming out of his mouth? Oh yeah, I forgot, another 1st year starting QB. UNC loses the do-everything, playmaking leader Darian Durant. That kid practically willed UNC to their 6-win season by himself. This will actually be the first time in 21 years that UNC has not had a QB come into the season without at least some starting experience. Nada. Starting will be senior Matt Baker, who has been patiently waiting for his time behind Durant for 3 years. The wait is over. Matt, meet Eric............ and Joe.......... and Gerris........ and KaMike....... and Philip......... and Chris. If you haven't met them yet, maybe you'll get plently of chances in the backfield on Saturday............... Backing him up is Joey Bozich, a redshirt freshman. Of course we're not much different in the 2-deep. They had a sophomore who will miss the season with back surgury (Roger Heinz) and they were VERY excited about a freshman named Cameron Sexton. Unfortunately he broke his ankle in spring practice after scoring a TD untouched. CUT THAT GRASS!!!!

Baker is actually a good athlete with good size at 6'3" 210lb. He has never started a game at UNC but has seen some back-up duty, throwing 80 passes the past 3 seasons. His best outing was last season in a blowout loss to UVA where he threw for 171 yards in the 4th quarter alone. In addition he had a very solid spring, albeit against a weak defense. However, spring games, blowout games and pre-season games don't necessarily translate to real-time football. Personally, I think Baker could be solid but he is an unknown commodity. They will only know what they have at about 7:00 pm Saturday, when the game is over.

The real question is whether the foam coming out of Jon Tenuta's mouth is leftover from the Auburn game, or is he generating new frothy saliva for this upcoming matchup? Remember, Tenuta has ties with John Bunting, and evidently they are not really chummy best buddies. Rest assured, Coach Tenuta is working on a gameplan to send UNC home with their tails between their legs. Wait, do "Tarheels" have tails?

If you thought the QB situation was unsure, wait until you hear about the running backs. Not only do the Heels lose Chad Scott and Jacque Lewis (who lit up the Jackets), but they are also missing Ronnie McGill with a torn pec muscle and is likely to miss the first half of the season. So what's left? Heels fans think very highly of Barrington Edwards, who played on LSU's national championship team, but transferred to UNC. At LSU he has a total of 41 carries for 169 yards. He will start this season after sitting out his transfer season. Edwards is a brash, smack-talking kid with some talent. In my opinion, the key will not be how he runs the ball, but how well he blocks, picks up blitzes and runs dump-off routes to bail out Baker when necessary........... Backing him up will be "Cooter" Arnold, a true freshman. Cooter? I smell a Sports Illustrated best name here? Of course, Cooter is his nickname, and he could never compete with Tennessee backup QB Jim-Bob Cooter. Cooter as a last name has much more weight than Cooter as a nickname. Not enough cachet. update - I just found out UNC has another backup tailback int he running for the name-game. None-other than Richie Rich. However, this Richie is neither short nor blond..........

You know, it's hard to criticize many college programs for not finding and developing quarterbacks. When teams like Miami and FSU and Oklahoma and Auburn are struggling with QB's, it's no shame for UNC to have questions. Face it, there are only a handful of real-deal QB's coming out of high school each season. Every other school is trying to find a guy they can develop. HOWEVER, it's a different story wtih running backs. It's pretty sad in Bunting's tenure that he has not been able to develop any level of depth starting right with the #1 spot. Heck, teams like GT, FSU and NCST go 4-6 deep. Clemson's frosh James Davis just ran for over 100 yards in his debut, and they have two other solid backs as well. It's hard to find good QB's. On a relative basis, good running backs are everywhere. Edwards might be solid, but there are more serious questions at this position for the Heels. By the way, in his profile, Edwards says Rashad McCants is one of his best friends. I guess Edwards wanted to join his buddy in the clink..........

This may be the best group of wide receivers in the ACC that you have never heard of. Can I wow you with names like Jesse Holley, Jarwasrski Pollock, Mike Mason, Derrele Mitchel and Wallace Wright? I can tell you that UNC fans think as highly of this group as Jacket fans feel about ours. However, their top 2 guys (Pollock / Holley) don't even have as many receiving yards as Calvin Johnson COMBINED. Pollock is going to set the all-time receiving mark for UNC by the time the season is over. He's a short (5'8") shifty receiver with solid route running skills. Their big threat though is Holley at 6'3" 200lb. He's the closest thing to Calvin Johnson they have, but a far cry for sure................. The bottom-line is this - UNC might be able to do the same thing Auburn did - expose our mid-range pass coverage, get underneath routes and look for yards after the catch. With a new QB, it's going to be in their best interest to keep the passing game short to mid-range.

This is the real strength of the entire UNC team. UNC averaged 4.9 yards/carry (2nd in the ACC) in their rushing game with a trio of backs, and it largely due to the O-Line. UNC was also 2nd in the ACC is passing yards/game, although the O-Line gets only partial credit due to the scrambling talent of Durant, who's gone now. In addition, UNC only allowed 21 sacks in 12 games - again, with a lot of credit to Durant.. The O-Line is still a strength, but they do have to replace the heart of their line, all-ACC center Jason Brown. They also replace tackle Willie McNeill. Three other starters return. The starting group includes 4 seniors and 1 sophomore (who might be their top line player and was named freshman all-American by Sporting News). So there is talent and there is experience. Size-wise, they're all about 300lb guys other than the center at about 280lb. This will be a critical challenge for the Tech D-line. Getting to the new QB will be tough and is more likley to come from LB or corner blitzes and not from the DE's. In fact, LT Brian Chacos didn't even allow a sack in the regular season. They also get their own "Omar Billy" situation, with Skip Seagraves returning for a 6th season after a medical redshirt at RT................ I have to give UNC the edge in this trench battle. However, they will not have the luxury of a scrambling, elusive Durant to bail them out. They will need to give Baker a bit more time in the pocket to have success. That could ultimately be their downfall.

There is another factor worth mentioning - injuries and continuity. In the spring, almost half the O-Lineman in the 1 and 2-deep was dealing with some type of injury. So while the group is talented, continuity could be an issue......

The good news - UNC returns 9 starters on defense. In addition, they return Chase Page, a starter 2 years ago who missed 2004 with a tendon tear in his hand. That basically means they return 10/11 starters......... The bad news - their defense stunk last year. So they return almost every player from a bad, bad, bad defense. As I mentioned, they gave up 31.8 points/game and 447 yards/game. They weren't even in the top 100 nationally in defense. However, they have some things going for them. Second year defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders seems to be having a positive impact. In addition, they brought in former all-ACC UNC LB Tommy Thigpen to coach the linebackers. From all reports, he has brought a new attitude to the LB core and they have raised the level of their play already. Also, I don't care what the level of talent is - experience is important. Certainly they will be expecting some of these players to "take that next step" this season, but I fully expect that they will have a better defense this year. It's no Tech, Miami, FSU or NCST, but they will be better.

I have to give the edge to the Jackets here. This defensive line helped give up a league worst 5.2 yards/carry and only sacked opposing QB's 20 times in 12 games. Yeah, they're more experienced and yeah they probably have a better understanding of Bunting's schemes, but I just can't see a significant jump here. They do return Chase Page, who's the guy that had the hand injury and missed 2004. Here's what Bunting said about his performance in the spring - "Chase had another unbelievable spring. The guy could not be blocked. He's a monster now."......... Well ok. Whatever you say Coach.

I can see UNC taking a page from both Auburn and Georgia Tech based on last week's game. Expect to see them try to exploit an experienced offensive line by running the ball, running mis-direction and counter plays, very much like Tech last week. Look for a lot of scheme blocking from the O-Line. In addition, with a new QB, expect them to try and allow Baker to get rid of the ball quickly through short and mid-range passes. It worked for Auburn - why wouldn't they give it a shot. To win the Jackets will have to do the usual - run the ball, stuff the run, control the clock, pressure the QB and don't make mistakes.

Is this going to be our letdown game? Absolutely not. Georgia Tech will not lose to North Carolina. There is too much of a revenge factor working. This is NOT the trap game. The trap games are really UConn, Duke and Wake Forest. The team will be focused, the team will be hungry for revenge. They will win, and I expect them to win big (well big for us). This is no pushover, but I just see the Jackets as driven in this one.....................

Final score: Georgia Tech 35 ..... North Carolina 14
PJ Daniels runs for 150 yards and calvin Johnson catches for 100+.