Of all college football’s opening-week games this year, the one between Georgia and North Carolina (Sept. 3, 5 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome on ESPN) might present the greatest opportunity for overreaction.
The Kirby Smart era begins in Athens, and Georgia fans are excited to see how he’ll stamp the program as he takes over for Mark Richt. If star running back Nick Chubb is healthy (as it appears he is), Georgia should win more games this year than last, but North Carolina is a nice early barometer for where Smart will be starting.
As a bonus, the Bulldogs might start true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, a five-star recruit who could be Smart’s kingmaker.
How all these storylines start to play out in this opener will lend themselves to plenty of hot takes. If Eason plays and struggles, he won’t be ready for the big time just yet. If Chubb looks slow in his return, he’ll never be the same again after badly injuring his left leg last October. That kind of thing.
Meanwhile, North Carolina has a chance to repeat as the division champion in the ACC’s Clemson and Florida State-less Coastal division, and a long-shot opportunity for a College Football Playoff bid with a conference title.
The Tar Heels return most of the key pieces from last year’s 11-3 team, save for star quarterback Marquise Williams. There’s definitely some excitement about replacement Mitch Trubisky, and Georgia will test how quickly and capably Trubisky can seize the reins of UNC’s spread offense. The result will be easy to over-analyze, though.
Here’s an accounting of some of the matchups that could decide the day.
How will Trubisky fare against a Nick Saban-style defense?
One of the ironies about Smart’s hiring at Georgia is that he probably won’t change the Dawgs’ offense or defense all that much.
For the last two years, their defense was already Saban-izing under former (and now current) Tide defensive coach Jeremy Pruitt. Smart comes from the Saban tree, too, and he is unlikely to make drastic changes with new coordinator Mel Tucker. The offense will still feature pro-style formations and a diverse, downhill running scheme to get the most out of backs like Chubb.
For Trubisky, this will make for an interesting first start.
The Dawg defense will be more talented than any non-Clemson unit the Tar Heels faced last year, and it’ll also be harder to read and attack. Smart is bringing a combination of pattern-reading Cover 3 schemes, as well as some diverse quarters coverages, to help muck up reads for quarterbacks and get the most out of a skilled secondary.
Georgia’s front seven is graduation-depleted entering the season, but the secondary returns all five of its nickel starters and also adds Alabama transfer Maurice Smith. Matching spread sets with fully loaded defensive sub-packages won’t be an issue. Up front, pass-rushing outside linebacker/defensive end Lorenzo Carter can bring some pressure and help to lead a young but talented group.
UNC hopes Trubisky can match some of Williams’ old running and improvisational flair while making the Heels’ vertical passing attack more potent.
At a listed 6’3 and 220 pounds, Trubisky has the perfect size to survive as a runner in head coach Larry Fedora’s spread attack. In limited snaps in 2015, it appeared he also had the needed mobility to make it work, like on one QB counter run against Miami.
On a play like this, the QB fakes a pass to buy time for a guard and running back to execute kick-out and lead blocks. Here, Trubisky showed the ability to eat up grass easily enough when it was there to be taken.
Of course, that’s an example of a QB lead run executed against a soft, third-and-14 defense at the end of a blowout game. But you can still see that there’s some valuable mobility there to execute some of the same run concepts that worked for Williams.
Trubisky also showed some potential in the run/pass option game last year. He can make a play look like a power QB run, then hit a receiver on a slant.
It’s not clear if Trubisky made the decision to take that option before or after the snap on this play, but either way, he read the Hurricanes’ weak-side safety and punished his aggressive position in the box with a dart to a slanting receiver.
When Trubisky can set his feet, he can really fling the ball down the field. Combined with North Carolina’s strong running game (5.9 yards per carry, third in the country last year), that should make this a difficult offense to defend. The offensive line returns mostly intact to punch open holes for primary runner Elijah Hood.
If the running game and pass protection set up Trubisky to throw strikes, Georgia could be in serious trouble. But if the Dawgs can force the still-green quarterback to make throws on the move, Trubisky hasn’t yet proven if he can do everything Williams used to do for the Tar Heels. That might be Georgia’s best shot.
The likeliest scenario? Trubisky finds some chances to throw from a clean pocket, but he’ll have to be quite accurate to beat a good secondary and give his receivers space to work with after the catch. If Trubisky can do that, he’s got playmakers who can reward him.
Can Chubb break Gene Chizik’s defense?
In the former Auburn coach’s first year as the defensive coordinator, North Carolina didn’t do well. The Heels finished 67th in the nation in Defensive S&P+ and concluded the year with an embarrassing performance against Baylor in a bowl game, when they yielded 645 rushing yards.
Schematically, Chizik runs a 4-3 over-quarters defense with fire zone blitzes mixed in, just like much of the country. However, he likes to play these defenses more conservatively than some teams and will lean on one of two things happening: his front playing a clean and reactive game, or his safeties cleaning up any mistakes.
In Chizik’s first year in Chapel Hill, there were a ton of mistakes. Beyond the Baylor game, which was one long nightmare, there were plenty of errors to go around in the other outings. For instance, this blitz against Miami in which someone (perhaps one of the DEs) muffed an assignment and allowed a simple checkdown toss to go for 30 yards on a third-and-10:
In 2016, the Tar Heels return their entire defensive line and secondary, which will undoubtedly help. But they’ll also have to break in new starters at the second level with two top linebackers and their top nickel corner moving on.
Those new pieces will immediately bear the responsibility of eliminating creases against Chubb, one of the country’s great backs. New Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will aim to make that job as confusing as possible.
With the addition of Rhode Island transfer Tyler Catalina, it now appears the Dawgs will be able to move top offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn from left tackle to his more natural position at left guard. Chaney was going to find ways to make the most of Wynn wherever he lined up, but generally, you want your 6’2 maulers inside rather than at left tackle.
The upshot of this move will be a blend of gap schemes and iso plays that move both Wynn and the point of attack around while inserting Chubb across different parts of the Tar Heel front. When Chubb finds a weak spot, he can drop the hammer.
Georgia has a couple of advantages here
Whether Eason is ready to take the helm and lead the Georgia passing game, the Bulldog offense seems primed to put up numbers against iffy run defenses such as this North Carolina unit. There are points available for Georgia’s taking.
The North Carolina offense is designed to feature the quarterback, and the Heels may have another good one in Trubisky. Still, he’ll be facing a stern test when trying to make reads and plays against Smart’s defense.
On another hand, the Georgia offense is expressly designed to feature Chubb, who will start the year off against a suspect run defense replacing key contributors.
If the Tar Heels pull this one out, it’ll be impressive, and it might be worth taking serious notice of the new quarterback in Chapel Hill.