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Three Reasons Why Virginia Tech Could Beat #10 UNC

By Robert Irby | September 02
via Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Football season is upon us, sons and daughters!

The Hokies are finally back in action Friday when they host #10 UNC. The Tar Heels have been garnering an unbelievable amount of hype from the national media all offseason, with some even considering them a playoff dark horse.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said last week on College Gameday that it is a "coin flip" between who will win the ACC, explaining how he believes UNC has a good chance to steal the ACC crown from the incumbent Clemson.

I will just tell you right now: there is no way UNC is winning the ACC. They are not anywhere near Clemson's level.

In fact, they are going to start 0-1 after a loss in Lane Stadium Friday. Here are three reasons why:

Season Openers are Justin Fuente's Specialty

Say what you will about Justin Fuente's tenure as the Virginia Tech head football coach. One thing is for certain: he knows how to get his team motivated for the first game of the season.

Since Fuente took over in 2016, the Hokies are 4-1 in season openers. In those five games, the average point spread is just under 12 points in favor of the Hokies.

This means that not only are the Hokies winning these games, but they are doing so by double-digit margins.

Looking at just the Hokies' four wins, which came in 2016 vs Liberty, 2017 vs #22 WVU, 2018 at #19 Florida State, and 2020 vs NC State, the average margin of victory is 18 points. Fuente's teams not only win the first game more often than not, but they do so convincingly.

The only loss came in 2019 at Boston College. This was an ugly football game in which the Hokies turned the ball over five times. It was, undoubtedly, the worst opening performance by any of Fuente's teams.

However, I believe this loss was due to a lack of motivation, as starting the season on the road at Boston College is about as ho-hum an opening game as you can schedule.

Looking at the four wins, they all had other factors that made the games more meaningful.

In 2016, the Hokies were playing their first game under a new head coach, and they wanted to start his tenure off well. In 2017 and 2018, the Hokies were playing longtime rivals who had snuck into the preseason top 25. And in 2020, the team's first two games had been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, and they were itching to go out and punch someone in the mouth.

The Hokies will surely be motivated to do the same to another rival in UNC, especially given their absurd national hype.

Big Plays Galore

In the same breath as the first reason, it is important to point out how emotionally driven Fuente's Hokie teams have traditionally been.

We have seen the team put together strings of explosive plays, pushing them to dismantle opponents. We have also seen them do the opposite, getting strangleheld by a tight defense while allowing far too many big plays of their own.

The inconsistencies many Hokie fans have griped about have come when the Hokies are not playing with the same gusto fans have seen them play just weeks before.

However, that won't be a problem this time.

UNC's defense is not very good. Though they are returning many of their starters from last season, those starters played some pretty bad football.

Where the Heels were most vulnerable was in allowing explosive plays (plays of 10 yards or more).

Last season, the Tar Heels ranked 113th nationally in their ability to stop explosive plays. Just over 20 percent of their opponents' plays went for 10 or more yards.

Conversely, the Hokies had one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Hokies' ranked 23rd in explosiveness with 23.5 percent of their plays gaining 10 or more yards.

Looking beyond just that 10-yard threshold, the Hokies had 60 plays go for 20 or more yards, an average of just under six per game. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels gave up 4.4 of those same plays per game.

Statistically speaking, the Hokies will have some big plays. And they have the athletes to do it, with Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson, and James Mitchell all back and ready to do what they do.

These plays could keep the Hokies motivated and give them the energy to pull off the upset.

The Pass Rush Has A Field Day

This offseason, one Hokie defender was honored with a selection as a First-Team All-ACC player.

His name: Amare Barno.

The edge rusher - who was playing defensive end for the first time in his life last season - played his way into a starting role last year after putting together 16 TFLs, including 6.5 sacks.

Safe to say, Barno is a beast that will be wreaking havoc on ACC QBs all season. And that will start on Friday night.

UNC QB Sam Howell is the type of quarterback who, when given time to survey the field, can absolutely pick defenses apart. But when there is clear pressure on him, he can be much less effective.

In a 31-17 loss last season to Notre Dame, Howell was sacked six times. He was unable to get anything going, as he went just 17 for 27 with 211 yards, compared to his per-game average of just under 300 yards.

Overall, the Tar Heels were not great at protecting Howell last season. They gave up 34 sacks last year, which was tied for sixth-most in the FBS. Unless this offensive line saw improvement in the offseason, these numbers will likely continue.

Additionally, Howell will need to be acquainted with a new group of pass-catchers with Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Beau Corrales, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter all not playing on Friday. This could cause Howell just a few seconds of hesitation in the pocket, as he will not yet have the same confidence in his new receivers.

Even half a second of holding the ball too long could be enough for a pass rusher to strike.

With Barno set up to be one of the top defensive linemen in the conference, as well as Clemson transfer Jordan Williams set to make an early impact at DT, the UNC offensive line will be powerless to stop the Hokies from making Howell uncomfortable.

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Born and raised in Radford, Virginia (hometown of the man himself, Mike Young), I am a lifelong Hokie. A member of Virginia Tech's Class of 2019, I currently reside in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two of my greatest loves are writing and Hokie athletics, so an opportunity to be a Scribe of Saturday was exactly what I needed. I have written for the Independent Tribune in Concord, NC, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing, the Tech Lunch Pail and Fansided. I hope one day to write for ESPN, The Athletic, Fox Sports, The Ringer or one of the like. In addition to watching/writing about sports, I enjoy drinking craft beer and playing golf.

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