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Preview: FSU vs. No. 5 North Carolina

For the second week in a row Mike Norvell and his Florida State (1-3) football team will take on the 5th-ranked team in the country. Mack Brown, who played at and graduated from FSU, brings North Carolina (3-0) to Tallahassee for a primetime matchup. The Seminoles, who are 15-3-1 all-time against the Tar Heels, enter the game as a 10-point underdog at home.

UNC overview

Brown has made short work of turning the UNC program around in his second stint as the head man in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels went 5-18 in the two seasons prior to Brown taking over in 2019 but are 10-6 since he took over the program after Larry Fedora was fired after the 2018 season. He has an overall record of 76-52 at UNC, which makes him the winningest coach in school history. Brown is one of the winningest coaches in college football history with an overall record of 254-128-1 while leading Tulane, Texas and UNC. His 254 wins rank 28th among all-time college football head coaches from all levels.

This year the Tar Heels opened the season with a 31-6 win over Syracuse then didn’t play again for three weeks after its second game of the year against Charlotte was cancelled due to concerns over Covid-19. The team returned to play in October and has since beaten Boston College (26-22) and Virginia Tech (56-45).

“It provides a great opportunity for our guys,” said Norvell of the matchup with the Tar Heels. “We need to improve individually, we need to improve collectively as units on both sides of the ball and special teams. And show improvement overall as a team. And to get to do that against some of the top teams in the country, it definitely adds a sense of urgency in all aspects of what we need to do. Because if we do go out there and don’t apply the lessons that’ve been learned, we’ll find ourselves in a very challenging situation. Obviously we’re excited about the opportunity to be back at home.”

UNC’s offense

UNC’s spread offense is led by sophomore quarterback Sam Howell (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) who was committed to FSU prior to Brown’s arrival in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels lined up in 11-personnel (one back, one tight end/H-back) the majority of the time against Virginia Tech last weekend with Howell operating out of the shotgun.

They have a very balanced offense but have run the ball more the deeper they have gotten into their schedule. So far this season, UNC has run the ball 58 percent of the time and have gotten more efficient in the process. Last week against the Hokies they ran for 399 yards on 43 attempts and they rank 8th in the nation in rushing offense (averaging 6.2 yards per carry). They rank 27th in passing offense (261 yards per game), 19th in scoring offense (37.7) and their 506 yards per game is 7th best in college football.

Howell has been very efficient this season completing 68.7 percent of his 83 passes for 777 yards and six touchdowns versus three interceptions. His completion percentage is 13th-best in the country and is the currently the second highest, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, of any quarterback on FSU’s 2020 schedule. Howell is also very decisive and gets rid of the ball quickly. He is also athletic, can make plays with his feet and is accurate throwing on the run. Howell has great pocket awareness and does a great job of moving around in the pocket to buy himself extra time to get rid of the ball. In short, he is a really good quarterback with an outstanding skill set.

UNC’s quarterback is also surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. Many people who cover the ACC think the Tar Heels might have the best running back duo in the conference if not all of college football. Senior Michael Carter (5-8, 225 pounds) and junior Javonte Williams (5-10, 220 pounds) have been outstanding. Carter is the second-leading rusher in college football, having rushed for 449 yards on 43 carries while scoring two touchdowns. He runs with great balance, vision and can flip the field in UNC’s favor in a heartbeat. Carter already has 12 carries of 10 yards or more this season and seven of over 20 yards. And the rushing attack is almost as potent with Williams in the game. He is averaging over 6.3 yards on his 45 carries and is more of a power runner than Carter. Williams has been very effective in goal-line situations having scored a team-leading six touchdowns. He is not the home-run threat Carter is but still has eight runs of over 10 yards to his credit and individually ranks as the 27th-leading rusher in the nation. This is not great news for the Seminoles coming out of the Notre Dame game, where the defense surrendered 353 yards on the ground.

The Tar Heels are also dynamic at wide receiver. Senior Dazz Newsome (5-10, 190 pounds), junior Dyami Brown (6-0, 185) and senior Beau Corrales (6-3, 205) give Howell a versatile group of pass catchers. Brown is the team’s speedster, deep threat and leading receiver. He has 13 catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Newsome has been steady with 10 catches for 100 yards and Corrales is the team’s third leading receiver with 9 catches for 97 yards.

Howell is not afraid to the spread the ball around: Ten Tar Heels have caught at least one pass this season and six players have caught six or more passes this season. Senior tight end Garrett Walston (6-4, 240) has been a dependable blocker and receiver this season. Against Virginia Tech he rarely came out of the game and will line up as a unit tight end, H-back or as a slot receiver.

UNC’s offensive line averages 6-4 and 318 pounds but is relatively young with a combined 50 starts among the five starters. The strength of the group and its most experience players are junior right tackle Jordan Tucker (6-6, 335) and junior right guard Marcus McKethan (6-6, 330) who have made 17 and 15 starts, respectively. They have obviously been successful clearing holes in the run game but they have allowed seven sacks so far this season, which ranks 32nd out of 76 teams in sacks allowed.

FSU defensive coordinator Adam Fuller knows his defense has a huge task on its hands on Saturday night.

“They’re operating at a high level,” said Fuller when asked if it was fair to say UNC was dynamic on offense. “That quarterback, he’s going into sophomore year, had an outstanding year last year. And they came off a great performance against Virginia Tech, obviously running the football, they’ve got wideouts that can deliver. So they’re an absolute challenge from sideline to sideline. Those two backs and two wideouts, quarterback. They’re playing well up front. They offer a lot of challenges.”

UNC’s defense

The Tar Heels have also been very good on defense under second-year coordinator Jay Bateman in his aggressive, multiple-front defense, which employs both odd and even front concepts. UNC likes to blitz, whether it’s against the pass or the run. Bateman will bring pressure from all over the field. Against Virginia Tech he utilized his cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers in a variety of man and zone blitz against the pass.

Statistically they rank 22nd in total defense, giving up 350 yards per game, 24th in rushing defense (122 yards), 29th in passing defense (227 yards), 24th in scoring defense (24.3 points) and are one of the stingiest defenses in college football having given up just 36 plays of 10 yards or more, which ranks 17th in the nation. They have also been very effective getting to the quarterback, where they rank 16th with 11 sacks.

“Their defense is very capable,” said Norvell. “Look back, in the last contest, they gave up some points there late in the contest and were working through that. But overall, I think they’re Top 25 in scoring defense, I think they’ve done a good job through the course of the season. They’ve got some good athletes, really good scheme, well-coached. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. That’s one of the reasons we have to have such a great week of preparation. Liked our start, what we were able to do today.”

FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham agrees with the Seminoles’ head coach.

“Pressure,” said Dillingham when asked what challenges FSU’s offense will face. “Buckle up. They bring pressure from all over, from every shape, every size, it’s coming at you. That’s kind of the identity of what they’re going to do. Defensively they have a lot of guys there that have played for a long time. A lot of returners. They’ve got five-star corners playing for them. They’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of veteran guys. That allows them to bring all that pressure because those guys are in the right position. If you have a whole bunch of young guys trying to bring pressure, all over the place, all the time, you’re gonna have a lot of MA’s and you’re gonna have some seams in the running game. I think they do a phenomenal job being aggressive and being able to pressure, but not being out of gaps. That is a testament to their defensive staff and to those veterans for understanding what they’re trying to do within the pressure.”

The strength and heart of the UNC defense is its linebacking corps, whose four starters have a combined 66 career starts and all four are highly productive. Three of their four linebackers rank in the top four on the team in tackles. And as an example of how much pressure UNC brings, three of its four linebackers rank either first or second on the team in quarterback hurries. The leading tackler on the team is senior inside linebacker Chazz Surratt (6-2, 225 pounds), who has 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles and his three sacks and four quarterback hurries also rank first on the team. Junior inside linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (6-1, 225 pounds) is just as disruptive and is third on the team with 19 tackles, and he is also tied with Surratt with four QB hurries this season. Senior outside linebacker Tomon Fox (6-3, 255 pounds) is fourth on the team with 13 tackles but first on the team with 4.5 TFLs.

The Tar Heels aren’t huge up front on defense but they are productive. Sophomore defensive end Tomari Fox (6-1, 280 pounds) is first on the team with 4.5 TFLs and second in sacks with two. Sophomore defensive tackle Jahlil Taylor (5-11, 320 pounds) and junior nose guard Raymond Vohasek have combined for 10 stops, four QB hurries and 2.5 sacks.

UNC has an athletic and active secondary that is a mix of experience and youth. Senior cornerback Patrick Rene (6-2, 205 pounds) has started 20 games in his career and has five tackles this season. Junior free safety Trey Morrison (5-9, 195 pounds) is second on the team in tackles (20) and is very good in the open field, having made 18 solo tackles.

UNC’s special teams

Senior Grayson Atkins (5-9, 188 pounds) handles the place-kicking duties and is 2 for 4 this season, with both of his misses coming from 40-plus yards. Sophomore Ben Kiernan (5-11, 205 pounds) is the punter and is averaging 42.6 yards per attempt with three of his 10 punts resulting in UNC’s opponents starting inside their own 20-yard line.

Newsome handles punt returns for the Tar Heels and ranks 5th in the nation with an average of over 13-yards per return on seven opportunities. Carter leads the team in kickoff returns with a 20.7 yard average but UNC has only attempted four kickoff returns on 13 chances. Opponents are averaging 12.3 yards per punt return on three of 10 opportunities. They have also only allowed 20 yards per kickoff return on four of 20 opportunities.

Heels’ Homecoming

In addition to Mack Brown returning to Tallahassee to face off against his alma mater the Tar Heels have two players with north Florida ties. Michael Carter is from Navarre High School, just east of Pensacola. Tight end Kamari Morales grew up just miles from Doak Campbell Stadium and graduated from Lincoln High School.

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