Between the Lines: UNC football vs. Cal

photo by Bryce Lapping

Welcome to my betting column, "Between the Lines," where each week I'll analyze the line for UNC games and tell you which side to trust. Let's be honest — you're going to pick North Carolina no matter what I say, so I'll either affirm your fandom or make you question why you're betting on your favorite team in the first place.

Sept. 2 at 12:20 p.m.: Cal @ UNC (-12), O/U 56

So you wanna bet the home team, huh?

I know you do. You can’t help yourself. You’ve been waiting eight months for this, and it feels like sacrilege to wager against your beloved Jordan Brand models on the first weekend of September. What’s a 12-point spread but a couple of touchdowns against an overmatched Pac-12 foe?

Not so fast.

Consider this: North Carolina played in 13 games last season. Only five times did the Tar Heels win by at least 12 points, and two of those came against FCS teams. Two more came against Illinois (3-9) and Virginia (2-10). The big win over Georgia Tech (9-4) seems nice until you remember the Yellow Jackets had one legitimate win last year and piled on the bottom-dwellers for the rest of their schedule.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Cal is just as bad as any of those other teams!” And that might be true. The Golden Bears lost their star quarterback, their leading rusher and their leading receiver from last year, and they’re trying to install a new defense before the season opener.

But wait a minute… Doesn’t that sound familiar? The Tar Heels lost every experienced skill position player this side of Austin Proehl, have a new leader in defensive coordinator John Papuchis and STILL haven’t named a starting quarterback. For all we know, Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris could be standing in the Kenan Stadium parking lot right now, splitting reps until someone separates himself.

This is not the same UNC team that pummeled Illinois and embarrassed two FCS foes in 2016. For what it’s worth, Cal actually returns more proven weapons on offense than North Carolina does, and the Golden Bears have at least installed sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers to head the offense through offseason preparations. Of course, the Tar Heels’ strength lies in their defense, where Cal is decidedly worse than most every team it plays. But new head coach Justin Wilcox is a defensive-minded coach — he led the great Boise State defenses in the late 2000s — and UNC’s offense likely won’t inspire fear in anyone until it collects some real game experience.

It can't be overstated these two teams are both starting fresh quarterbacks on a field that will likely still be recovering from the remnants of a storm on Saturday morning. Two shaky offenses plus one stout defense typically doesn't spell a shootout, and it likely won't signal a blowout, either.

Could the Tar Heels beat the Golden Bears by two touchdowns? Sure. If the offense hums and the defense locks down, they could win by 30 — sending those who blindly bet UNC and the over into a tizzy. But to count on a newly-installed quarterback to lead a remade offense to a double-digit win is asking a lot, even if Cal looks ripe for a blowout. Remember, the Tar Heels only did that five times last year with decidedly more talent and experience. Don’t count on the same result this Saturday.

PREDICTION: Cal +12, UNDER 56

Agree/disagree with my picks? Think following my advice is a bad investment (hint: it is) and want to demand a refund? Let me know @CJacksonCowart or in the comments below!