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ACC Spotlight: UNC vs Syracuse

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews Saturday's contest between North Carolina and Syracuse.

ACC football will open its season Saturday with the stage all to itself in the south and northeast. The only other Power 5 conference that will be in action this weekend will be the Big 12.

Eleven of the ACC’s 15 schools (counting Notre Dame) will take the field this weekend. Six of those 11 programs will be facing each other in a conference game. Clemson-Wake Forest should be an intriguing matchup, but our preview of the week belongs to the Syracuse-North Carolina showdown.

If this were a normal year, the Tar Heels would enter the fall as one of the top two favorites to win the Coastal division. However, 2020 is everything but normal, and it will take a first or second-place finish in the entire ACC for North Carolina to return to the conference championship game for the first time since 2015.

A two or three-loss team isn’t going to Charlotte this December because of a division full of parity like the last two years. That makes every game, particularly home contests, important for North Carolina this fall.

Two years ago, Syracuse would have loved the no-division setup. The Orange finished the 2018 season in a tie for the second-best ACC record. They beat North Carolina that season on their way to becoming the only other ACC team with 10 wins besides Clemson.

But after a 5-7 campaign, Syracuse is back to fighting for respect and bowl eligibility should there be a bowl season. Orange coach Dino Babers is out to prove he can lead Syracuse to a winning record without Eric Dungey at quarterback.

The Tar Heels enter the season with absolutely no questions at quarterback following Sam Howell’s exceptional freshman year behind center. Howell passed for 3,641 yards, 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, including 27 of those scores in the final eight games of 2019.

Howell recorded multiple touchdown passes in every contest last season. In the final five games of 2019, he posted 16 touchdowns with only two interceptions and a 9.09 yards per pass average.

He’s obviously not facing the same amount of attention nationally as Trevor Lawrence received after he led Clemson to the national championship nor should he be. But like Lawrence last summer, Howell enters 2020 as the most hyped young quarterback in the conference.

North Carolina has plenty of offense returning around Howell as well with 1,000-yard rusher Michael Carter in the backfield and two top receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown back in the fold.

Syracuse’s defense has only finished better than second-to-last in the ACC in yards allowed once under Dino Babers, and that was a measly 10th in 2018, but the Orange defense has been exceptional at forcing mistakes with a conference-high 56 takeaways since 2018. North Carolina is going to get its yards, but for Syracuse to win, the Orange will need at least two, if not three or four, takeaways.

Unless those turnovers are defensive touchdowns, what Syracuse does with those opportunities will be up to quarterback Tommy DeVito and the Syracuse new offensive line. The Orange allowed 4.17 sacks per game last year, which was the highest rate in the ACC. DeVito took 35 of the team’s 50 sacks.

Running back depth is a major concern for Syracuse heading into Week 1, so protecting Dungey is imperative for an Orange upset win.

The Syracuse offensive line will have its hands full, though, with Tar Heels linebackers Tomon Fox and Chazz Surrat, who return as one of the best pass rushing duos in the ACC. Fox and Surratt combined to record 13.5 sacks in 13 games last season.

Not bad considering half the duo used to play quarterback.

Prediction: North Carolina 35, Syracuse 20