The Yellow Jackets lead the series with a 27-18-3 mark, including four straight and 13 of the last 15. Four of those losses have come in UNC’s conference opener over the past decade, a span in which the Tar Heels have started ACC play with a loss nine times.
Georgia Tech is favored by 6.5 points; however, the more intriguing line is the 60-point over-under. These two teams combined for nearly double that total in last November’s 68-50 Yellow Jackets victory that resulted in an ACC-record 118 points.
“It was probably one of the craziest games I’ve been in just because it was back and forth,” said UNC quarterback Bryn Renner, who is two touchdown passes shy of tying T.J. Yates’s school record of 58. “It felt like we were sitting down and getting up a lot… I’ve never been in a game where it’s 68-50 and you looked up and thought you played bad when you scored  points.”
North Carolina defeated Middle Tennessee two weeks ago, 40-20, marking the seventh time in 14 games the Tar Heels have scored 40 or more under head coach Larry Fedora. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, is averaging 54.0 points through its first two games on 2013.
That doesn’t guarantee a second shootout in as many years, though.
“I don't ever try to figure out how the game is going to go,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “It could go 6-3 and that would be fine if we had six. They're very good offensively and I don't know that you're going to be able to hold them down like that. Usually when you think it's going to be high scoring, it is 10-7 or 6-3 or something like that. Who knows what's going to happen?”
While the offseason was bloated with talk of UNC’s defensive ineptitude against the Yellow Jackets, most seem to forget that the Tar Heels led 36-34 just seconds into the second half. UNC averaged 7.2 yards per play, compared to Georgia Tech’s 7.4.
UNC’s rushing attack will have to show improvement In order to replicate that level of efficiency on Saturday. With Gio Bernard and three offensive linemen from 2012 now playing in the NFL, the Tar Heels are averaging 3.03 yards per carry on 233 yards through two games.
First-year Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof plays a technically sound game while taking minimal risks. The purpose is to force teams grind out long scoring drives and take away big play opportunities. Despite a weak schedule (Elon, Duke) as an early sample size, the Yellow Jackets are holding opponents to 3.87 yards per play and 7.0 points per game.
“They’re playing harder than they did a year ago,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said of Roof’s defense. “I think they’ve rallied around his personality and what he’s sold them and what they’re doing. I think they are really fundamentally sound. They do not tend to beat themselves. And those two things alone give them a chance to win games.”
Roof has zeroed in on UNC’s perimeter screens this week, which serves as an extension of the ground game. Renner (49-of-77 passing, 533 yards, 2 TD, INT) has carried the load offensively for the Tar Heels, while dispersing the ball to 11 different receivers through two games.
The flow of Saturday’s Coastal contest may be determined by which tempo wins out. Georgia Tech ranked fifth nationally in time of possession in 2012, holding the ball for 32:59 per game. UNC was on the opposite side of the spectrum, ranking 120th with a 26:52 T.O.P.
In last season’s high scoring affair, the Yellow Jackets dominated the time of possession in the second half (22:32-7:28) as UNC managed just one drive longer than 75 seconds and that one was only 1:55.
“We’ll be cautious if we need to be,” Anderson said. “Any time the head coach needs to get on the headset and tell me to slow things down or to extend a series or give the defense a blow, we can always put the brakes on and manipulate the tempos as we need to, but we want them to have to play at our pace, too.”
North Carolina’s defense will play a role in limiting the time discrepancy as well. Georgia Tech’s win-loss column in 2012 correlated with its third-down efficiency (56.1 percent in seven wins; 35.1 percent in seven losses). The Yellow Jackets converted 9-of-15 third downs against UNC last season and currently lead the nation with a 73.1 percent conversion rate (19-of-26).
Injuries, limited depth and a new scheme plagued the Tar Heel defense in last season’s shootout, but there has been considerable growth over the last 10 months.
“I have seen definite improvement over where we were last year, from where we ended the season last year,” Fedora said. “No doubt about it. Our guys are playing harder, faster, they're thinking less. You see them being better athletes. You see their athleticism come out because they're not having to think. They understand what we're trying to do.”
The defensive challenge against Georgia Tech, however, remains meticulous. The Yellow Jackets are averaging 6.5 yards per carry while red-shirt sophomore Vad Lee (15-of-27 passing, 314 yards, 6 TD, INT; 28 rushes, 125 yards, 2 TD) has added a dangerous option under center.
“[Lee] throws the ball down the field very well,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “He’s very accurate. You can be over the top and he can throw a back shoulder. There’s not much you can do about all that.”
A North Carolina victory would snap a seven-game losing streak at Bobby Dodd Stadium and give the Tar Heels their first road win in an ACC opener since 2000.