North Carolina begins the season on Saturday against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. That’s not any kind of news. Some of the insights, though, from Chip Towers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Georgia beat reporter extraordinaire, might be news to UNC fans.
Chip is The Man on the Georgia beat. And, lucky you, he was kind enough to take a few moments to answer questions about all things Bulldogs entering Saturday. The status of Georgia’s running backs, the possibility of facing a freshman quarterback, what Georgia makes of UNC … we’ve got you covered.
So let’s get going. A Q-and-A with Chip Towers:
Andrew Carter: For a while now there’s been all this talk about the running backs at Georgia, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both coming off injuries. Both surrounded by questions: Will they play, won’t they, how effective will they be. It seems certain that Chubb will play. What can we expect out of him? And what’s the deal with Michel? Overall how big of a question is Georgia’s running game entering Saturday?
Chip Towers: It really is remarkable the turn of events Georgia has had at its famed tailback position. First of all, Chubb is going to start, he’s going to play a lot and, by all accounts, he’s going to play at or near the level he did before that devastating knee injury at Tennessee last October (three ligaments but not the ACL). He has averaged 7.4 yards a carry and scored 24 touchdowns in 19 games in his career, so anywhere near that should be pretty good.
The real question is with Michel, who is a pretty fine back in his own right (1,161 yards filling in for Chubb last season). Michel broke both bones in his left forearm and had surgery to screw them back together nine weeks ago. As of Tuesday, he hasn’t been medically cleared for contact. However, he has been practicing the entire time, just not being tackled. So it’s conceivable Georgia could play him vs. UNC. But they’ll have to decide if it’s worth the risk. A non-conference game with 11 others to play after it might be reason to err on the side of caution. But if they decide to play both of them, the Bulldogs’ offense is way more effective -- and unpredictable.
AC: One of the challenges for UNC has been preparing for a team that doesn’t really exist on film. UNC has studied what Kirby Smart did at Alabama, and studied what other coaches have done in their previous stops. How have Georgia’s players adapted to the new schemes, and what is Georgia hoping its identity will be on offense and defense?
CT: Really, the Georgia team UNC will see on Saturday will be very much like the ones everybody has seen the last 15 years under Mark Richt. They’re still pro-style/tailback-oriented on offense and the defense is absolutely identical to what they’d been doing under Jeremy Pruitt the last two years, which is what they’ve been doing at Alabama the last nine years.
That’s why all the mystery regarding the starting quarterback is sort of silly, in my opinion. Georgia’s offense is not going to be markedly different under any of the quarterbacks. (Georgia offensive coordinator) Jim Chaney might have a few wrinkles and depend on tight ends a little more. But basically it’s going to be either hand it to 27 (Chubb) or fake it to him and throw.
AC: Word is that Jacob Eason, the true freshman quarterback, stands a good chance to start for Georgia. If it happens that way that speaks highly of Eason, obviously. What’s the scouting report on him and what’s in store for the Tar Heels if Eason is the guy at quarterback?
CT: The book on Eason is what one might think of any hot-shot freshman quarterback of his ilk. First, he’s huge. He’s 6-6 and has put on 30 pounds since enrolling in January, so he now weighs 242. He has a huge arm and release that’s not fundamentally perfect, almost sidearm. But he can flat out zip it into some places. And that’s a curse as much as a blessing. He thinks he can make every play with his arm, so he has a penchant for throwing into some places he shouldn’t sometimes. He reminds me of Matthew Stafford in 2006. He, too, was the No. 1 QB prospect in the land when he signed with the Bulldogs. He eventually became the full-time starter as a freshman, but finished with 7 TDs and 13 interceptions because he thought he could make every throw, coverage be damned.
AC: Statistically, at least, UNC was one of the best offensive teams in the country a season ago. It set school records for yards and points per game. The Tar Heels believe they can be even better offensively this season. What’s the level of concern for Georgia’s defense entering Saturday, and how do you see the Bulldogs trying to disrupt what UNC does offensively?
CT: The level of concern for Georgia’s defense is high. Without question, the Tar Heels’ offensive has the Bulldogs full respect. And why wouldn’t it. Few units in the country can match the weapons and experience UNC has on that side of the ball. As far as UGA’s D, they’re fairly experienced despite being kind of young overall. Especially in the secondary. Those guys have played a lot of games. But the defensive line has some serious depth issues, thanks to some early-season attrition. Sophomore Jonathan Ledbetter, a would-be starter at defensive end, is out while getting drug and alcohol treatment. Another frontline player (Chauncy Rivers) was dismissed. Junior noseguard John Atkins missed most of camp with a hyperextended knee but is back. Meanwhile, the linebackers and outside linebackers are all extremely talented but new as starters. So what they get out of their front seven in this first game is highly unpredictable. Eventually they look like they could be a very good unit. It will be quite a testament to the coaching staff if they play well right off the bat against an offense like UNC.
AC: UNC won 11 games last year and played Clemson tough in the ACC championship game. But the Tar Heels couldn’t stop Baylor in the bowl game and UNC lacked prominent victories last season, which created a perception that it wasn’t as good as its record. So I’m curious: Do Georgia and its fans think the Tar Heels are for real, or how is this game being viewed in Athens and parts beyond?
CT: I think there is a general sentiment among the fan base that UNC is a mere ACC opponent and not “one of the good ones” at that, ie: Clemson and Florida State. There will be an air of that SEC superiority you see everywhere in this league. But the coaches have made sure the players don’t buy into that. North Carolina’s tape is pretty impressive as it is. And they’ve been preaching the ACC’s exemplary numbers as far as head-to-head competition with the SEC of late and numbers of draft picks and all that. Again, the Heels definitely have Georgia’s respect.
And, as a BONUS! ... A prediction from Chip ...
I really like this matchup. I think each team is strong where the other is weak, and that should make for a high-octane, high-scoring affair. Only because they’re playing in what will amount to a home-field atmosphere in the Georgia Dome along with the extra energy that the Kirby Smart coaching change is bringing, I think the Bulldogs will pull this out. But I think it’s going to be competitive throughout and close at the end. Let’s say Georgia by a field goal, 31-28.
So there you have it. Some perspective from Athens.