The 2020 season was one of hope, with Miami pulling off some fourth quarter magic while slowly rising in the polls. At #9 and needing one win to secure a trip to the Orange Bowl, #20 UNC came to town for the regular season finale. The Tar Heels took Miami’s promising season and tore it to pieces in front of all of our eyes, thrashing the Canes in a dominating 62-26 win. For my money, it was one of the more humbling games I’ve ever watched. 554 yards rushing by the Heels, with all but 10 of those yards coming from Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. The performance certainly helped both players get drafted by the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, as well. An all-time stinker for the program.
But that was then, and this is now. Miami returns a wealth of talent with 10 offensive starters (if you count Will Mallory) and Charleston Rambo added to the mix. The defense looks to retool the end spots, but Tennessee transfer DeAndre Johnson has a chance to make an immediate impact across from Jafari Harvey. Tyrique Stevenson might have been the best defensive back added by transfer in the entire country.
In other words, Miami has as much talent coming back as anyone in the country, and with an offseason to lick the wounds of a horrible loss, who’s to say they can’t write a different story this time around?
UNC on offense
The Heels still have Sam Howell, likely the best QB in the ACC (although those in Coral Gables and Clemson would probably dispute that) and possibly the country. If that wasn’t worrisome enough, the entire starting offensive line returns. The same one that completely flattened Miami’s front seven all game long last year. They added veteran RB Ty Chandler from Tennessee, a bruising runner who averaged 4.9 ypc in Knoxville on a bad Tennessee team. If there’s a perceived weakness, it might be a drop in talent in their skill position players, as Carter/Williams were a devastating combo that will be hard to replace. Top WRs Dynami Brown and Dazz Newsome were both drafted this year. However, Howell is good enough to lift up those around him, and I doubt they lack for ability to make plays.
UNC on defense
The Heels return a whopping 10 starters on defense, with their sole loss being 3rd-team All American LB Chazz Surratt. So, while they lost undeniably their best defender, they return everyone else around him. Their corners are good, but young. However, they held up pretty well last year against the Canes, who simply couldn’t get anything going in the passing game until the game was way, way out of hand. Miami’s front will have to deal with a push up the middle from nose guard Raymond Vohasek, who tallied 7 tackles for loss and earned ACC honorable mention honors last year, as did OLB Tomon Fox with 7 sacks off the edge last year. They don’t scare you, statistically, and they have games where they allow a lot of points, but that’s also been a function of the high-paced/high-scoring games they’ve been playing with the UNC offense performing at a very high level last year. This group has enough talent coming back to give you problems.
Items of note for this matchup
Interestingly enough, this will be the seventh straight game to start the season for UNC, while Miami will be coming in off a bye. I would normally say that’s a very good thing, but Manny’s teams after a bye week have been inexplicably bad. So, we’ll see if Diaz has been able to mature as a coach and get his team ready from the opening whistle while rested off a bye. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Last trip here in 2019, Miami had to dig itself out of an early hole, and if not for a ridiculous 4th-and-17 conversion, Miami walks out of Chapel Hill with a win. In 2017, Miami won a close game that they shouldn’t have had to do against a very bad UNC team. In 2015 they got waxed. In short, Chapel Hill isn’t a place where Miami typically performs its best.
When it comes down to this game, I worry a little about how the respective lines will play. Can Miami generate enough pressure to take Howell off his spot, make him uncomfortable, and disrupt the offensive flow? Where is the pressure going to come from? Miami’s unknowns are off the edge on the defensive line, so it’s tough to say. UNC also returns everyone up front, so the task will be tall in creating pressure. Diaz is going to have to get creative, unless Harvey or Johnson show up and become All-ACC-level rushers. I do like Miami’s ability to get a push in the middle with their stable of young and talented interior defensive linemen.
On the other side of the ball, can Miami do better than the 75 yards on 27 carries they put forth last time? That 2.8 ypc was akin to the 3 other sub-3 ypc games they put forth running the ball. So, simply put, that has to be better next season, as asking King to do the lion’s share of the work for the offense was an inexact science. It worked against the NC States and Virginia Techs of the world, but not against the superior Clemson and UNC squads. The return of Navaughn Donaldson will really help in the run game, so there’s at least that working for the offense. Hopefully Jakai Clark will be back on the field by then as well.
As much as I want to go with Miami here, the combination of playing in Chapel Hill, Sam Howell’s poise, Mack Brown having a true “je ne sais quoi” edge over Manny Diaz with in-game coaching, and Miami’s never-ending slow starts out of the bye seem like a lot of minuses to overcome. I think Miami again falls behind early, by three scores, and fights back. Unfortunately, they don’t get the one score they need to pull off the monumental comeback.
UNC 31, Miami 26. (may I be completely wrong on this, football gods)