Welcome back to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Counting down the days until the season kicks off, we're ready to start breaking down the schedule game-by-game, with summaries of each team we'll face and our confidence level in the Hoos to get that win. Today, we'll tackle games four through six of the 10 game slate.
Date: Saturday, Oct 17th
Location: Truist Field, Winston-Salem, NC
2019 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
Last Meeting: WF 27 - 20 Virginia, 11/5/16 @ Wake Forest
The Athletic Preseason Ranking: 10th of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Predicted Finish: 13th of 14
CFN National Ranking: 39th of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: On offense, Wake is going to lean on its running game. They have to replace 2,247 career rushing yards and 19 career rushing touchdowns posted by the departed senior Cade Carney. But his backup last season, sophomore Kenneth Walker, had a nice season in 2019 as a true freshman. He rushed for 579 yards on just 98 carries for a 5.9 yards per carry average. Walker finished with 4 rushing touchdowns and had a long rush of 96 yards.
Wake's offensive line is what makes their running game go. The Deacs are returning just three OL that made starts in 2019. Per The Athletic, that accounts for 42% of their OL starts returning. But this group is deep, versatile, and filled with veterans. They feel good about six returnees - two redshirt seniors, three redshirt juniors, and a redshirt sophomore. And Wake adds a grad transfer from Maryland (Terrance Davis) who had 31 career starts at right guard. Wake also has two redshirt freshman that are almost ready to join the rotation as backups.
Honorable Mention All-ACC center Zach Tom, a redshirt junior, started all thirteen of Wake's games last season. But he's bumping out to left tackle for 2020. Like the Hoos, Wake prefers to cross train their offensive lineman allowing for players to play multiple positions so that losses to graduation or injury are more easily mitigated.
On defense, Wake will return a veteran front seven. The defensive line returns four players with a ton of starting experience. The unit is headlined by Carlos "Boogie" Basham, a native of Roanoke. Basham won First Team All-ACC honors last season at defensive end. He was second in the ACC in both sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18). Listed at 6-5 and 285 pounds, the redshirt senior is destined to be a first round pick in the next NFL draft with another good season. Wake's other expected starting defensive end is just a redshirt sophomore. But in the interior of the line, they'll start another redshirt senior and a redshirt junior. Both tackles are only listed at 290 pounds, so a strong interior offensive line may be able to push them around. Wake has another five defensive lineman that are expected to be in the rotation and provide playable depth.
In Wake's scheme, they only start two traditional linebackers. But their Rover position is typically a large safety that spends most of his time in the box. In that regard, the Deacs return two linebackers and two rovers with extensive playing time. At linebacker, you have a redshirt senior and a true junior. The returning rovers are both redshirt seniors. Highlighting the group is junior linebacker Ryan Smenda. Smenda led Wake in tackles last season with 81. A starter in every game, he also made 7 tackles for loss.
At kicker, Wake returns a first team All-American in junior Nick Sciba. A kicker that simply doesn't miss is a substantial weapon and that's what Wake has in Sciba. For his career, Sciba is 97 for 97 on extra points and 43 for 47 on field goals (91.5%). Last season, Sciba made 24 of 25 field goal attempts (96%). At one point across his freshman and sophomore seasons, he made an FBS record 34 consecutive field goals. Sciba missed a field goal attempt in the second quarter in Wake's season finale against Syracuse to end his streak.
Weaknesses: At wide receiver, Wake was expecting redshirt junior receiver Sage Surratt to headline the unit after earning First Team All-ACC honors in 2019. During his redshirt sophomore season, Surratt made 66 catches for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns. He accomplished that in just 9 games. Surratt missed Wake's last four games with an injured shoulder. You couldn't blame Demon Deacon fans for expecting an explosive pass offense led by Surratt, a potential All American. But on August 19, Surratt announced that he was opting out of the 2020 season to focus on 2021 NFL Draft prep instead.
Now Wake's presumed starting duo of Donavon Greene and Jaquarii Roberson will enter the season with a combined 26 catches. Greene is a talent but the redshirt freshman is inexperienced. He played in just four games as a true freshman in 2019 where he made 13 catches for 249 yards and 2 touchdowns. Most of those stats came in an overtime shootout against Syracuse. Roberson, a redshirt junior, also owns 13 career catches to his name.
Backing up that duo are a trio with 4 career catches. Those all come from redshirt sophomore A.T. Perry. A redshirt freshman that played 7 snaps against Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl and a true freshman early enrollee round out the receiver depth for the Deacs.
While Wake's passing attack may be hampered by their lack of proven players at wide receiver, their pass defense may suffer from a similar issue at corner. Both starting corner spots are unsettled heading into the season. They have four returning scholarship players as well as three incoming recruits.
The veteran of the group, senior Ja'Sir Taylor, has 6 career starts. During the 2019 season, he did make 2 picks, 2 pass break ups, and had 2 tackles for loss as a reserve. The next most likely options behind Taylor are a redshirt junior and a sophomore that have played in a combined 26 games in their career. The redshirt junior, Tyriq Hardimon, has 16 of those games played while sophomore Isaiah Essissima played in 10 games as a freshman last season. They have 15 career tackles combined. The fourth returning corner with experience, redshirt sophomore Kenneth Dicks III, is a career special teams player to date.
Summary Thoughts: Wake's expected season turned in a hurry when QB Jamie Newman transferred to Georgia. His replacement, Sam Hartman, is still a quality ACC quarterback but he is injury prone. Sage Surratt's decision to opt out of the season was a possibly insurmountable blow to the Deacs' offense. While their young receivers try to find their way, the offense will have to be much more one dimensional as they rely on the running game to move the ball. There will be a lot of pressure on the offensive line and running back Kenneth Walker.
Fans shouldn't pity Wake too much though. The offensive line is a quality unit. They have a first round talent rushing the passer in Basham. And they feature an All-American kicker. They won't challenge for the league title, but they're going to be a tough out regardless.
You can count on this being a well-coached squad that plays a very physical brand of football. In order to beat Wake, you'll have to match their level of intensity and physicality. If not, you'll look up at the scoreboard as the 4th quarter ends wondering how you lost that game.
I expect the Hoos to be up to this challenge.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 7
Date: Saturday, Oct 24th
Location: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, FL
2019 Record: 6-7 (4-4)
Last Meeting: UM 17 - 9 Virginia, 10/11/19 @ Miami
The Athletic Preseason Ranking: 5th of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Predicted Finish: T-4th of 14
CFN National Ranking: 19th of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: For the first time in a generation, Miami should make their opponents fear the starting QB position. After a tumultuous run of signal callers dating back to Ken Dorsey, the Canes appear to have struck gold in Houston grad transfer D'Eriq King. Last season, King took advantage of the NCAA's four game redshirt rule after playing in Houston's first four games of the season. He then announced his intent to redshirt and leave Houston as a graduate transfer for the 2020 season. Miami won a fierce recruiting battle for King over Arkansas, LSU, and Maryland.
Miami has installed a new, tempo based spread offense to go along with new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee, also the QB Coach at Miami, joined the program this year after holding the QB Coach / OC jobs at SMU previously. That offense is tailor made to take advantage of the 5-11 dual threat QB's talents.
In his last full season of competition (2018), King posted video game style numbers at Houston. He passed for 2,982 yards while completing 63.5% of his passes. He threw 36 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions as well. Running the ball, King gained 674 yards on 6.1 yards per carry. He also rushed for 14 touchdowns. His QB Rating of 167.0 was also 7th best in the country.
Something to watch, however, is that King took 14 sacks during the full 2018 season. During his abbreviated 2019 season, he took 12 sacks in just four games.
Miami always has a collection of athletic, fast wide receivers. But King's top target this year will almost certainly be junior tight end Brevin Jordan. As a sophomore in 2019, Jordan was already a Mackey Award finalist. As a freshman in 2018, Jordan won Second Team All-ACC honors. He improved on that as a sophomore in 2019 by winning First Team All-ACC honors. During his sophomore campaign, Jordan caught 35 passes for 495 yards (14.1 yards per catch) and 2 touchdowns. In Miami's 17 to 9 win over the Hoos last season, Jordan caught two balls for 48 yards including a long reception of 35 yards. Jordan will certainly be among the top players at tight end in college football this year.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, Miami was expecting to field one of the top pass rush duos in the nation with 6-7 253 pound redshirt sophomore Greg Rousseau and 6-4 235 pound Temple grad transfer Quincy Roche. Unfortunately for Miami, Rousseau has elected to opt out of the 2020 season. You can see it's a major loss as Rousseau earned First Team All-ACC honors as a redshirt freshman. He led the conference with 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. And he was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Last season at Temple, Roche won AAC Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. For the season, he had 49 tackles (36 solo / 13 assisted), 13 sacks, and 19 tackles for loss. He also forced 1 fumble, recovered 2 fumbles, and got credit for 5 passes defended. Roche selected Miami over interest from Virginia Tech, Rutgers, North Carolina, and Texas.
Expect Roche to challenge for all conference honors in the ACC as well. His presence will still allow for a potent pass rush at Miami, but it won't be quite the nightmare opposing offenses were looking at before Rousseau's opt out.
Weaknesses: Until proven otherwise, the Miami offensive line will headline this section. First, the good news for Miami. They return 100% of their offensive line starts per The Athletic. They also return three players that each made 13 individual starts on the Miami offensive line in 2019. Now, the bad news otherwise known as reality. Miami's offensive line in 2019 was dismal.
PFF's ranks for Miami's 2019 OL reflect a unit that was certainly offensive. PFF ranked them 109th in run blocking and 110th in pass blocking for all of FBS. The Miami starting OL also allowed the 8th most QB pressures in FBS with 140. And their 51 sacks surrendered were dead last among Power 5 conferences.
Miami signed only two OL in their 2020 recruiting class. 247 composite 4 Start recruit Jalen Rivers may be forced to play early but it's difficult to see him turning around the entire line as a true freshman. Their other signee is considered a project. Miami also hit the transfer market to bring in two linemen as well. Isaiah Walker Jr. actually signed with Florida in December 2019 before entering the transfer portal in May 2020. He was also a 247 composite 4 Star recruit. Walker has requested a waiver to play immediately but Miami is still awaiting a decision from the NCAA.
Miami also added Houston grad transfer Jarrid Williams to their OL room. Williams, an OT, has 19 career starts to his name. He played RT during all of 2018 where he gave up just 2 sacks. Injuries limited Williams to only 4 games in 2019, setting the stage for his grad transfer season. He picked Miami over Baylor, Florida State, Ole Miss, and USC.
Until they prove otherwise, it's hard to expect much from Miami's OL. Adding a new, tempo based spread offense to the mix will only serve to muddle their progress. At best, my expectations for the Miami OL is to show fits and starts of incremental improvement during the season. Their goal should be to avoid sinking the offense entirely again like last season.
Like the Miami OL, head coach Manny Diaz did not have an impressive 2019 season. Diaz often looked over his head running The U's program and gameday operation. After just one season, Diaz has replaced his offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. It's great that he was able to identify those problems, but he also didn't allow for those units to gain any sort of continuity. That will be important during the 2020 season as teams had very little, if any, spring practices. And fall camps will certainly be different in the age of COVID. Diaz also had all kinds of chemistry issues among the players last year.
He's currently saying all the right things. But consider me a skeptic.
Summary Thoughts: Losing to Miami last season was inexcusable. That loss was probably the bottom point of the 2019 season for the Hoos. The Canes won that game fair and square, but I don't think any UVA fan came away impressed by the new regime in Coral Gables. And while Miami managed to back their way into a bowl game (a 14 to 0 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl), this is a program largely going backwards at the moment. Including the bowl loss, Miami finished on a three-game losing streak that also included a loss to Florida International. Consider that just three years ago, Miami was ranked as high as second in the country with a 10-0 record.
The OL situation is still highly questionable. There's a lack of top-flight, proven playmakers at the skill positions. And does anyone really believe in Manny Diaz right now?
Miami will go as far as their defense and D'Eriq King can take them. If King gets injured, then all bets are off.
I'd feel much better about our chances to win this game if it was the home game we deserved in the series rotation. But, for some reason, the Hoos are playing at Miami for a second consecutive year. So, for all the doubting of the Canes, I'm still considering this one a toss-up.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 5
Date: Saturday, Oct 31st
Location: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA
2019 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
Last Meeting: UNC 31 - 38 Virginia, 11/2/19 @ North Carolina
The Athletic Preseason Ranking: 3rd of 15
The Athletic State of the Program ($): Link
CFN Preseason ACC Predicted Finish: T-6th of 15
CFN National Ranking: 17th of 130
CFN team preview: Link
Athlon Team Preview: Link
Strengths: Sam Howell? Trevor Lawrence? Sam Howell? Trevor Lawrence? Expect to hear this debate ad nauseum from media that covers the conference closely. That it's even a conversation worth considering is a testament to how impressive Howell looked as a freshman for UNC last year. For the record, I'd still go Lawrence, but Howell's deep ball is fantastic (I say that grudgingly).
In 2019, Howell won ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year and was Third Team All-ACC behind Trevor Lawrence (1st Team) and Bryce Perkins (2nd Team). His 3,641 passing yards were second best in the ACC and good for 14th best nationally. Howell also threw 38 TD passes which topped the ACC and was 4th best nationally. He completed 61.4% of his passes as well.
There's not a lot that needs to be said here about Howell. If you follow ACC football, then you know who he is. And, if you're being honest with yourself, it's terrifying to think about how good he can become throwing the ball with year over year improvement. Look for him to try to improve his decision making and mobility.
Howell and his wide receivers have a symbiotic relationship. Neither would be as good without the other. And UNC returns its top three wideouts from 2019. It should lead to another dangerous passing offense in Chapel Hill. The headliners are the duo of Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Newsome, a senior, and Brown, a junior, are supported by senior Beau Corrales.
Newsome, a Second Team All-ACC selection in 2019, made a team high 72 catches. Those catches amounted to 1,018 yards (14.1 per catch) and 10 touchdowns. Brown, who joined Sam Howell as a Third Team All-ACC honoree, was the big play receiver for the Heels. His second best 51 catches accounted for 1,034 yards (20.3 per catch) and a team leading 12 touchdowns. Corrales finished third on the team in catches (40), yards (575), and touchdown receptions (6).
The UNC defense is led by a pair of inside linebackers. The duo of Chazz Surrat and Jeremiah Gemmel will be one of the top tandems in the ACC this season. Surratt, brother of Wake Forest receiver Sage Surratt, was also a First Team All-ACC selection in 2019. Despite it being his first season playing defense, Surratt was second in the ACC in tackles with 115 (66 solo / 49 assisted). He also picked up 6.5 sacks, defended 3 passes, intercepted 1 pass, forced 1 fumble, and recovered 1 fumble. His debut season on defense saw him finish as runner up in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Clemson's Isaiah Simmons.
And while Surratt led the Heels in tackles, his running mate at inside linebacker finished second on the team. Gemmel totaled 84 total tackles (42 solo / 42 assisted). He also contributed 2.5 sacks, forced 3 fumbles, defended 2 passes, and recovered 1 fumble. Gemmell didn't win any all-league honors but that's still a productive season by any measure.
Weaknesses: If there was a downside to Howell's freshman season, it was that he took 36 sacks. The Heels return their center and right side of their offensive line intact. But they're still trying to sort out things on the left side. There's a better than average chance that a redshirt freshman gets the nod at LT. And as of August 29's scrimmage, Mack Brown was reported to feel good about only six players on the OL per Inside Carolina.
Their next two most ready lineman are both interior guys. One of which is a walk on who has split his time between the offensive and defensive lines so far. Complicating things is that a couple of expected backup contributors have battled injuries throughout UNC's camp.
With a talented offense that also boasts an excellent pair of running backs, an offensive line held together by tape and glue can doom a season quickly.
On the defensive side of the ball, UNC's defensive line is also keeping Brown up at night. The Heels typically play just three defensive linemen while often lining up their outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Ideally, according to Mack Brown, the Heels would be able to generate their pass rush with just four rushers. But that has not been the case throughout camp and the August 29 scrimmage.
UNC lost their two best defensive linemen from 2019 in Jason Stowbridge and Aaron Crawford. And they're still struggling to identify consistent replacements. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has lots of options at his disposal. But they're all unproven. Or coming off of injuries that persisted into spring. Or are redshirt freshmen that haven't played. Or they're freshman that just arrived on campus (UNC signed six defensive linemen in their recruiting class).
Bateman is running out of time to tinker and experiment. If he can't cobble together a respectable defensive front, then UNC's playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary could go wasted.
Summary Thoughts: The Heels are getting a lot of hype heading into the season. They'll likely be just behind Notre Dame in the preseason pecking order for who gets to challenge Clemson for 2020's ACC crown. It's easy to look at Howell's freshman resume, the trio of returning wide receiver weapons, two excellent running backs, shiny recruiting classes, and assume that the Heels are ready to roll.
But with questions on both lines, it's difficult to buy into UNC being a national level team this year. Persistent issues on both lines are bright, flashing warning signs as we head into the season.
Against the offense, the clear strategy will be to neutralize the UNC attack by putting Howell on his back early and often. And if the UNC defensive line can't find a workable solution, everything else they do on defense will have to be adjusted to mitigate that weakness. The Heels will need to win shootouts. But will they be capable if Howell has no time?
Don't look for Brown to provide a ton of answers. He's in full CEO mode relying on his coordinators to do all the heavy lifting. But Brown still has to make the calls on game day. And that's his weakness as a coach. It always has been and always will be from my seat.
As far as the Hoos' matchup with the rival Heels, my biggest concern is the UNC receivers versus the UVA corners. If Howell gets time, he can cause a lot of damage throwing the ball.
Maybe I fear Howell's arm too much, but he makes this game a tossup in my opinion. The Hoos may have to win in a shootout. We don't know if this edition is capable yet.
Win Confidence (1 to 10): 5