Thanks to Andrew Carter, North Carolina beat writer for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for taking time to answer a few questions about the Tar Heels. You can read his stuff here and follow him on Twitter here.
Q: Who are North Carolina’s three best players?
A: That's actually more difficult to answer than I thought it'd be. The best is pretty clear: Landon Turner. The senior right guard is among the best offensive linemen in the country, and he's probably the best interior lineman in the ACC. He's off to a fantastic start, too.
After Turner it gets a bit murkier. I'd put Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, up there. He can change a game in ways that UNC's other skill players can't. Entering the season, I would've listed quarterback Marquise Williams, but it hasn't been the start to the season that he – or anyone else – expected.
So I'll go Turner, Hood and Ryan Switzer, who's always a scoring threat on punt returns and is a playmaker in the passing game.
Q: How are UNC quarterbacks Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky similar and different, and what’s your sense on what it would take for Trubisky to get in the game Saturday?
A: They're more similar athletically than people realize, probably. Both are capable runners. Both are stronger guys who can sustain some contact.
Trubisky is considered the better passer, which is probably the main difference. He played really well against Delaware last weekend. (Though, again, it was Delaware.) He was accurate with his throws. Made quick reads. That's something Williams has been struggling with this season.
That said, Williams has been an effective downfield passer, too, in his years at UNC. But not so much this season. He seems to be pressing, really. Williams is the more seasoned, experienced player, and I think that gives him an advantage in some situations.
For UNC to make a quarterback change again, for the second consecutive week, Williams would have to get off to another slow start. Coach Larry Fedora says Williams won't have a short leash. Williams has said he doesn't feel he will.
But I think in reality it probably is that way. If Williams struggles early – and especially if he turns the ball over a time or two – the chances that Trubisky enters the game increase exponentially.
Q: Both Notre Dame and Duke threw different looks at Tech that were evidently part of an overall successful effort. Have you heard anything that would lead you to think the Tar Heels might try to copy anything?
A: UNC paid a lot of attention to what Notre Dame and Duke did defensively against Georgia Tech. I'm sure Gene Chizik and his defensive coaching staff got some ideas studying those games.
That said, UNC has been preparing for this game for a while. It devoted some time to it during preseason practice, and also spent a couple weekly practice sessions on Georgia Tech since the season began.
I wouldn't be surprised if UNC copied some of what Duke and Notre Dame tried to do, but it sounds like UNC has been practicing a specific way for this game for some time.
Q: How has (new UNC defensive coordinator) Gene Chizik changed the defense?
A: He wanted it to be known for its physicality, above anything else, and you can see a real difference there. The defense is more physical. It does appear to be more hard-hitting. So that's one thing.
More than that, though, we're just not seeing anywhere close to the number of blown assignments and complete mental lapses that plagued this defense last season. Back then, it was common for opposing receivers to be running wide open down the field, not a defender in sight. I don't think that's happened once this season.
UNC has allowed a few long plays in the running game – including a 72-yard touchdown run on Delaware's second play last week – and that doesn't bode well for this weekend. Still, the defense is just a lot more “sound,” if that makes sense, than it was last season. Guys are in better position to make tackles. There are fewer busts. And players seem to understand Chizik's 4-3 scheme a lot better than the 4-2-5 they were trying to run last season.
Q: I find it kind of mind-boggling, but North Carolina has lost eight road games in a row to Tech. Among fans and within the team, how much of a sore point is this?
A: It's a sore point among the fans probably more so than the players, none of whom have any memories of a UNC team actually winning in Atlanta. I'm not sure the players care a lot about that sort of thing, though. Obviously, they want to be part of the team that breaks that streak and ends the drought.
I'm sure some fans certainly wonder if there's some sort of voodoo hex going on. Especially the way some of the games have gone down. Most of UNC's losses in Atlanta during this streak have been relatively close – a lot of them decided by single digits.
This streak pales in comparison to the one UNC had going for a while at Virginia. The Tar Heels lost 14 in a row there between 1983 and 2008. So if it reaches that level there'd probably be a lot more consternation.
Q: I also find this hard to believe, but I think the Tar Heels have been 4-4 in the ACC five of the last seven years. Do you have a better read on this team three games into the season, and do you think UNC can contend for the Coastal?
A: I do, yes, but I'll like UNC's chances a lot more if it wins on Saturday. The division really does seem incredibly wide open. If UNC wins, that moves Georgia Tech to 0-2 with games still to play against Florida State and Clemson. Because of that you'd almost have to think that the Yellow Jackets would be eliminated from the race with a loss on Saturday. (Though I'd know better than to count out Paul Johnson.)
Win on Saturday and UNC has as good of a chance as any team – and maybe even the best chance – to win the division. It's non-rival crossover game is against Wake Forest. The Tar Heels play Duke at home. Yes, the games at Virginia Tech and N.C. State will be difficult, but even those are winnable.
I think UNC can contend regardless of what happens at Bobby Dodd but the Tar Heels have a chance to make believers out of a lot of people with a win on Saturday.