RICHMOND, Va. — Under new/old football coach Mack Brown, North Carolina has been an early-season surprise and goes into Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech in a three-way tie for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

The Hokies head into Saturday a game back and knowing that the path to becoming eligible for a bowl game becomes considerably more difficult if they can’t navigate past the Tar Heels.

Jonathan M. Alexander has covered UNC’s football and basketball programs since 2018. Prior to that, he covered Duke basketball. Alexander took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about North Carolina going into Saturday's game at Virginia Tech.

1) North Carolina and Mack Brown opened some eyes starting the year 2-0 with wins over South Carolina and Miami. Back to back losses quelled the enthusiasm but a narrow loss to Clemson and then the win over Georgia Tech righted the ship. So, how good are the Tar Heels this season?

Alexander: I don't mean to sound cliche, but the Tar Heels are as good as they want to be. This season, they've been an up and down team.

Like you mentioned, they won their first two games against Miami and South Carolina, then lost to Wake Forest and Appalachian State. Not that either of those teams are bad. App State is ranked in the AP Top 25, and Wake Forest was ranked before losing to Louisville 62-59 last Saturday.

But the Tar Heels likely should have won both games. In both, they waited until to the fourth quarter to show up to play. And that has been a theme this season, with the exception of the Clemson and Georgia Tech game. The Clemson game shows just how good UNC can be.

The Tar Heels are good enough to win the ACC's Coastal Division. They just have to bring it every week.

2) How much of a surprise is the play of Sam Howell? And, as a young QB, is UNC expanding what it asks him to do week to week?

Alexander: The coaching staff knew Howell was capable of performing well at this level and leading the Tar Heels, but he's definitely exceeded expectations. Through the first six games of his college career, he has 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His 15 touchdowns are ranked second in the ACC and 10th in the nation. I don't think anyone could predict that.

Brown was asked on Monday whether he's been surprised by what the true freshman has done, and he said he has been.

To answer your second question, yes. He's gotten better as the season has progressed.

UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said each week he's presented Howell with new challenges, and Howell has responded.

3) North Carolina has six interceptions in six games but hasn't got many sacks on opposing quarterbacks. How will the Tar Heels approach new Tech starting QB Hendon Hooker, a dual-threat athlete who hasn't thrown an interception in his first two starts?

Alexander: The Tar Heels will likely try to confuse Hooker with some disguised blitzes, similar to what they did against Clemson's Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence was only sacked once, but he struggled in that game because he was under constant pressure.

But the Tar Heels are also worried about Hooker's scrambling ability.

"He killed Miami scrambling," UNC defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said Monday. "So I think that's a big emphasis for us, is rush lanes, contain, maybe not trying to make a great pass rush move to beat a guy because it is going to open a huge lane inside of you."

4) Virginia Tech has a lot of North Carolina players on its roster and recruiting that state has been an emphasis for this coaching staff. A few years ago, star WR Cam Phillips said he thought UNC was the team coach Justin Fuente most wanted to beat each year. How do the Tar Heels view this Tech game? Is it a bit of a rivalry?

Alexander: Mack Brown said on Monday that every team in the Coastal Division is a rival. But I do believe that he wants to beat Virginia Tech.

Brown's mission has been to dominate with in-state recruits, and the best way to do that is to win against the teams they are competing with for those recruits.

And Virginia Tech has definitely done a better job with that in recent years.

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