North Carolina coach Mack Brown hasn’t tried to dismiss the high expectations that are following his 18th-ranked Tar Heels entering Saturday’s season-opening visit from Syracuse.
The Tar Heels closed last season with three straight blowout wins, including in the Military Bowl against Temple. And they’re picked to be a factor in an Atlantic Coast Conference race headlined by No. 1 Clemson and No. 10 Notre Dame.
Brown said it’s now up to the Tar Heels to prove that hype is deserved.
“I want us to be ready to play and play great, just so we can figure out who we are,” he said. “And then we can go from there. And if we don’t play well Saturday, everybody will be saying we were overhyped. If we play well Saturday, everybody will say say, ’Yeah, we knew that (they) were going to be good.'
“But I’ve told our guys that scenario changes very quickly with a poor performance. So you need to play well, instead of just bragging on yourself all the time.”
There are plenty of reasons for the Tar Heels to feel confident as a big favorite at home against the Orange. It starts with the return of quarterback Sam Howell at the helm of an offense that returns 10 starters, including a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown as well as 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter.
Syracuse won 10 games two seasons ago, but stumbled to a 5-7 record last year. Among the changes for fifth-year coach Dino Babers is the arrival of defensive coordinator Tony White, who installed a 3-3-5 scheme that will lean on preseason Associated Press All-America second-team pick Andre Cisco as a playmaking rover.
“It’s going to be a difficult situation, there’s no doubt about it,” Babers said. “When you have the ability to run and throw the football, there’s going to have to be times where those guys are isolated and our DBs are going to have an opportunity to make plays, and their receivers are going to have an opportunity to make plays.”
Some things to know about Saturday’s Syracuse-UNC game:
HOWELL’S SECOND ACT
UNC quarterback Sam Howell threw 38 touchdown passes last year, a UNC program record and the most by a true freshman in Bowl Subdivision history. Yet despite throwing more than 32 times per game, he threw just seven interceptions in 13 games as a rookie – just 1.7% of his attempts.
“Last year I was kind of preparing for the unknown,” Howell said, adding: “It’s definitely easier to prepare because now I know what it’s like.”
Syracuse will have to do a better job of protecting redshirt junior Tommy DeVito this year.
The Orange surrendered an average of 4.17 sacks per game last year, with only Old Dominion (4.33) and Akron (4.83) worse in the 130-team FBS ranks. Four starters are back from that offensive line this season.
The Orange lost the two running backs that topped the depth chart in the spring. Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, the leading returning rushers on the team, opted out of the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The revamped backfield features redshirt freshman Jawhar Jordan and seldom-used redshirt junior Markenzy Pierre as the top ball carriers. Also missing from the depth chart was redshirt junior LB Tyrell Richards, who has the most experience on the team at the position.
Syracuse's up-tempo spread has sparked at least one wideout to big numbers each year, though coach Dino Babers isn't sure who will be the next.
Junior Taj Harris (77 catches, 1,124 yards, five TDs in two seasons), senior Nykeim Johnson, and redshirt sophomores Anthony Queeley and Ed Hendrix are candidates.
“We never know who the guy’s going to be. It’s an open slate,” Babers said. “It’s a clean chalkboard every single year, and whoever wants to write their name up on the board in capital letters can do it.”
The game will be played with no fans in attendance amid the pandemic. UNC has announced that football and other fall sports won’t have fans at home events at least through September.
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, contributed to this report.
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