North Carolina’s preparations for the season included a five-day break in the latter part of August due to campus-wide issues with the coronavirus.
But 19 days after the No. 18 Tar Heels resumed practice, they open the regular season with an ACC game against Syracuse today at Chapel Hill, N.C.
The ACC is one of three Power 5 conferences that decided to go ahead with a season. North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Syracuse counterpart Dino Babers know the commencement of this campaign is highly atypical.
“We told them ‘win the day,’” Brown said of his message to players. “Just do the best you can do today. Let me worry about all the stuff outside. You take care of your mental health and take care of your physical health.”
Babers can relate since one of his big goals is to limit distractions for players.
“It is a big challenge on both sides,” Babers said. “This is one of those years where it’s not that you are not looking at your first opponent, but you really need to look at what you are doing and to make sure that your guys have a grip on what you are doing. In a game like this it is going to be difficult.
“The big thing is that our guys are excited about playing a football game and we are going to go down there and give it our best shot.”
Syracuse (5-7 overall, 2-6 ACC last season) will have its hands full with a North Carolina offense that averaged 33.2 points and 474 yards per game last season.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell passed for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
Babers intimated that Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence might be the only better signal caller in the ACC.
“You’re talking about a person that a lot of people say is the second-best quarterback in the conference,” Babers said of Howell. “He’s got a big-time arm. He can touch the entire football field, no doubt about it. He’s one of those guys that’s going to end up being a high (NFL) draft pick.”
The Tar Heels (7-6, 4-4 in 2019) also return solid skill players in senior running back Michael Carter (1,003 rushing yards) and senior wideout Dazz Newsome (72 receptions for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns).
Senior inside linebacker Chazz Surratt is the defensive star after recording 115 tackles and 15 for losses (including 6.5 sacks). The former quarterback was runner-up for ACC defensive player of the year honors.
The Orange also return a standout in junior defensive back Andre Cisco, who has 12 career interceptions. He had five last season.
Junior quarterback Tommy DeVito guides an offense that averaged 28.3 points in 2019. He passed for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns while being picked off just five times.
DeVito threw three touchdown passes in a relief appearance when host Syracuse beat North Carolina 40-37 in double overtime in 2018.
Brown hears the chatter that the Tar Heels are in line for an easy win but he said his squad needs to prove itself.
“Preseason rankings are just hype,” Brown said. “They’re about last year. They’re not about what you’ve accomplished this year, so we need to step up and play well and get this season started on a positive note.”