The first game between ACC opponents in the 2021 college football season is a big one. No. 10 North Carolina, the preseason ACC Coastal favorite, will travel to Virginia Tech for a Friday night game at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia, that will carry major implications. While Miami was picked to finish second in the ACC's Coastal division, the Hokies could catapult themselves into the division race by avenging last season's 56-45 loss to the Tar Heels.
Doing so will require the Hokies to demonstrate marked defensive improvement after UNC put up 656 yards in last season's meeting. While the Tar Heels return star quarterback Sam Howell, they are replacing their top two running backs and top two wide receivers from last season's 8-4 squad. That should make the Hokies' task more manageable this time around.
Entering last year's meeting, both teams were 2-0 and ranked in the AP Top 25. However, their seasons diverged after UNC's win; the Tar Heels rose all the way up to No. 5 and the Hokies finished 5-6. So, while it's only Week 1, the fallout from Friday night's showdown could be immense.
North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech: Need to know
UNC's new playmakers: Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome are gone after combining for 109 catches last season as Howell's favorite targets. Also departed are UNC's pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who also combined to catch 50 passes out of the backfield. Those four players combined for 47 of UNC's 66 offensive touchdowns last season. In a year when many programs return a surplus of experience because of relaxed eligibility rules, the Tar Heels have a ton of production to replace. But don't be shocked if potential breakout receivers Josh Downs and Khafre Brown approach their combined 22 career receptions by the end of this game.
Braxton Burmeister's squad: Quarterback development stood out as a hallmark of Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente's successful run at Memphis. Now in his sixth season with the Hokies, Fuente has struggled to replicate that formula in the ACC. Can Burmeister finally bring some consistency to the position? That's the hope as the Hokies replace star running back Khalil Herbert and turn the quarterback duties exclusively to Burmeister after he split time with Hendon Hooker in 2020. Burmeister, an Oregon transfer, is in his third season with the program and needs to take a big step.
Pass rush competition: In last season's 101-point offensive frenzy, each squad mustered just one sack. Whichever pass rush can get the most pressure should have an advantage this time. North Carolina boasts a veteran offensive line, but it's a group that allowed 34 sacks last season -- and 19 of them came in UNC's four losses. Some of those were coverage sacks, but the point stands: if you can pressure Howell, you can disrupt the Tar Heels' offense.
How to watch North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech live
Date: Friday, Sept. 3 | Time: 6 p.m. ET
Location: Lane Stadium -- Blacksburg, Virginia
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
North Carolina vs. Virginia Tech prediction, picks
Playing a season-opening conference road game in front a hostile crowd for the first time since 2019 is a tough ask for the Tar Heels, especially with Howell still gaining comfort with new running backs and receivers. The Virginia Tech defense will be motivated to prove last year's issues were the product of learning a new system amid COVID-19 disruptions. The Hokies are 2-0 in season openers against ranked opponents under Fuente, and the bet here is they make it 3-0. Prediction: Virginia Tech (+5.5)
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