We’ve reached the halfway point of this year’s Syracuse Orange football calendar. While SU will enjoy plenty of Dome Sweet Dome in September, October is the complete opposite. Week Six begins a month-long road trip for the Orange, and it’s here where the resolve of the 2023 team will be tested the most.
With Clemson behind them, ‘Cuse will continue its toughest stretch with a trip to one of America’s oldest public universities....
North Carolina Tar Heels
School: University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Nickname: Tar Heels
Mascots: Rameses (live and costume versions)
#BRAND Slogans: #CarolinaFootball, #UNCommon
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: #JordanFootball or #CheaterHill
Recommended Blog: Tar Heel Blog
History vs. Syracuse: In most major sports, this would be the winner-take-all Game 7, as UNC and SU are tied 3-3 in their all-time series. They first met in 1995, a 20-9 ‘Cuse win at Chapel Hill. The other two Orange wins had crazy finishes: it took triple overtime to decide a 2003 game, and 2OT for a walk-off win in the Dome in 2018. They last played in 2020, with no fans in the stands due to COVID. It was, however, my first official SU game as a student - I had a less-than-stellar time watching the 31-6 loss from the main lounge in Sadler Hall.
Coach: Mack Brown, fifth season of second stint. That’s right - Brown also coached the Tar Heels from 1988-1997, taking a program which was at rock bottom to six consecutive bowl games and a pair of Top-10 finishes. Prior to the ‘97 Gator Bowl, he accepted the head coaching job at Texas. The LongHorns would have twelve straight ranked seasons under Mack, most notably their 13-0 run to the 2005 National Championship. Brown resigned after the 2013 season and went to ESPN as a college football analyst, staying there until UNC lured him out of retirement in 2019. Since returning, the Tar Heels are a perfect 4/4 in qualifying for bowls. He’s now the winningest coach in program history and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
2022 Record: (9-5) (6-2)
Recapping Last Season:
The Tar Heels had a frontloaded non-conference schedule that began in Week 0. After surviving an incredible App State rally and then rallying themselves at Georgia State, UNC dropped to 3-1 with a loss to Notre Dame. The wins continued to pile up after that, but they weren’t easy victories - during their six-game winning streak, four games (Miami, Duke, Virginia, and Wake Forest) were decided by three points or less. By this point, the offense had finally run out of gas, and the Heels freefalled. First hapless Georgia Tech pulled off the road upset, then NC State added insult to injury with a double OT win in Chapel Hill. Clemson routed UNC in the ACC Championship, then Oregon scored with 19 seconds left to defeat them 28-27 in the Holiday Bowl.
Only two other Power 5 quarterbacks had more passing yards than freshman Drake Maye’s 4,321. His 66.2 completion percentage was a conference best, as were his 45 total touchdowns (38 passing, seven rushing). But by no means was he a one-man show: the UNC receiving core was outstanding as well. Josh Down had 94 receptions (4th among P5 wideouts) for 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Antonie Greene added seven more scores and nearly 800 yards as one of the country's most dangerous deep threats. The dual RB system of Elijah Green and Omarion Hampton did what was needed, mainly in the redzone.
Despite such a strong air attack, this team was severely held back by a lackluster defense. Opponents were able to unleash their own passing games with ease, forcing the offense to get worn down late in the season. LBs Cedric Gray and Power Echols, both Charlotte natives, had an absurd 247 combined tackles - a great selling point for them, but what does that say about the rest of the team? Storm Duck was the team’s only consistent secondary player, but he sat out the postseason and transferred to Louisville. Kicker Noah Burnette was only 15/21 and his misses were the difference in two losses.
2023 Season Outlook:
The season starts in Charlotte for a battle of the Carolinas. After that, UNC hosts App State and Minnesota, as well as a cupcake against Campell in November. Other home games are against SU, Miami, UVA, and Duke. Pitt, GT, Clemson, and NC State are their ACC travel destinations.
Maye seems destined for somewhat of a sophomore slump. Between the wear his young arm likely received from the sheer number of pass attempts, and the departure of his favorite pair of targets, replicating such an effective air-raid seems unlikely. TE Bryson Nesbit and WR J.J. Jones return for some familiarity, while Kent State transfer Tez Walker (58 catches, 921 yards) may be the answer as a high-volume target.
High-end talent won’t save the Tar Heels in close games this time. Gene Chizik had an abysmal first year with this group and regardless of his past accomplishments should be on a very short leash. With Gray, Echols, and streaky safety Deandre Boykins still on the roster, there’s at least a foundation to work with. The group added five upperclassmen, four of whom are graduate transfers, in an attempt to quickly patch its largest holes.
Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 7
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Odds of Orange Victory: 35%
Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:
While this isn’t a game that SU should win, it’s certainly one that they can. I think UNC fans will agree that the defense, despite now being loaded with veterans, still leaves a lot to be desired. The question is how well Maye will gel with a vastly different receiving room. Don’t expect him to fall off a cliff production wise, but not having two No. 1s anymore means he can’t air the ball out at will.
On the downside, ‘Cuse is going to be feeling the previous two weeks against Army and Clemson; I’m not counting on them being at full health entering this matchup. Bet the over, enjoy a whole lotta offense, and maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.