Delayed by a year, Georgia Tech’s “Mayhem at Mercedes-Benz Stadium” starts Saturday night with its ACC Coastal Division matchup with No. 21 North Carolina. The game will begin Tech’s six-year series of playing one game a year at the $1.5 billion sports palace.
“The ability to play one game a year in Mercedes-Benz, which is arguably the greatest pro stadium in the world, says a lot, and I’m excited that our guys get to experience that,” coach Geoff Collins said.
There’s also the matter of playing the Tar Heels, who have scored 59 points in consecutive games, are a favorite to win the Coastal and are favored in this game by 12.5 points. A week after their near upset of then-No. 6 Clemson, the Yellow Jackets will try to earn their first win over a ranked opponent in Collins’ tenure.
Here are five things to know about the 56th meeting between the Heels and Jackets:
1. Sam Howell comes to dominate
Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker elevates UNC quarterback Sam Howell to the same hallowed status as Clemson legend Trevor Lawrence.
“He’s special,” Thacker said. “Whatever his draft grade is, it’s deserved. He is as natural of a thrower (as there is) in the country. He has as much confidence in the pocket as anybody that I’ve seen.”
Howell is a possibility to be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft and possibly the No. 1 overall pick. Accurate, elusive and possessed of a big arm, he chewed up Tech in 2019 as a freshman in the Tar Heels’ 38-22 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium, completing 33 of 51 passes for 376 yards with four touchdowns and an interception.
Because of Howell’s scrambling ability, Tech cornerback Tobias Oliver said, plays can last longer than the normal.
“Playing DB, a lot of times when he scrambles around, you have to kind of plaster your guy, follow him around, because at that point, (the receiver) can run any route,” Oliver said. “The routes break down, the quarterback scrambles around for 10 seconds, so now he can run across the field, he can do anything.”
2. Tech’s defensive look
Tech surprised Clemson with its 3-3-5 defensive look, which helped the Jackets limit the Tigers to 284 yards of offense, its fewest against an ACC opponent since Tech held them to 190 in a 28-6 win in 2014.
“We’re still 4-2-5,” Thacker said Tuesday. “That’s still the backbone of who we are. That’s still the basis of what we do, that’s still what we were practicing (Tuesday). But we’ve got a bigger menu of what we can go out and create on a Saturday.”
Thacker said that the decision in alignments is based on trying to get the best players on the field and to counter the offense.
“We’re going to need to be ready for the three-safety stuff (the 3-3-5 look) and the four-down stuff,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “It’s very similar to last week with regards to what we’re going to see on defense because Virginia employed a very similar approach.”
3. Big-play chances in passing game
Last week, Clemson cornerbacks played off the line of scrimmage, giving the Jackets receivers breathing room at the line but limiting the chances for hitting big plays. North Carolina uses the reverse strategy, pressing its corners up close to the line. One of the Tar Heels’ starting corners is Kyler McMichael from Greater Atlanta Christian.
“They’re going to get up nose-to-nose with you, and they’re going to challenge you to beat them down the field,” offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “So you have to be able to have that mix of being able to hit some fades and some posts and some things like that and be able to establish the line of scrimmage.”
The aggressive coverage does open some chances for Tech to complete downfield passes. Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw for a school-record 554 yards against the Tar Heels on Saturday in North Carolina’s 59-39 win.
“So we’re going to have to go out there and sling the ball a little bit, and we’re excited to do that,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said. “I know coach P’s confident; the receivers are confident. We’ve got great protection up front, so it’s going to be a good one this Saturday.”
4. Making a big impression early
Freshman defensive tackle Zeek Biggers, one of three North Carolinians on the Tech roster (specialist Austin Kent and defensive end Keion White are the others), has seen his role grow in his first three games.
“I feel like the more I keep getting better on a day-to-day basis, I keep playing more,” Biggers said. “But I’m just excited to be out there and help us work our way to winning.”
Biggers made two tackles against Clemson, including a stop for no gain of Clemson running back Kobe Pace, a play that led to the Tigers punting on that third-quarter drive. He also has been playing on the punt-block team, bulling his way into the upback.
“I keep working (to get a blocked punt) because I haven’t gotten one yet, but eventually I’m going to get one,” he said. “We’re going to see what that’s going to do. Hopefully I get a scoop-and-score off of it.”
Biggers was not offered a scholarship by UNC, according to his 247Sports recruiting profile. He said he’ll have family at Saturday’s game.
“It’s definitely going to be cool and great because I grew up in North Carolina, big family of North Carolina fans,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a good game for me.”
5. Scouting report from Chapel Hill
Among North Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s observations of the Tech offense:
“I think the two running backs (Jahmyr Gibbs and Jordan Mason) are great players. I think Jahmyr Gibbs is a great player, one of the best backs we’ll play.”
“I think the two quarterbacks (Jordan Yates and Jeff Sims), they both have played, are very similar athletic guys. … No. 10 (Sims) was a kid last year that was on all the freshman All-American kind of stuff. We spent a lot of time in the offseason looking at him.”
“Yates is a kid that we looked at in recruiting. The guy won a state championship. He’s just a winner. Runs around, makes plays, competes his tail off.”
“The biggest improvement is O-line. Just bigger, able to move people a little more, so you have to do a great job in the run game.”
“I think the two receivers out there (Kyric McGowan and Carter) are guys that, when you play one-on-one coverage are able to beat you.”