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Duke Blue Devils vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Preview and Prediction

David Cutcliffe

David Cutcliffe

If you think it seems a little early in the year for Duke-North Carolina, you're right. The game this coming Saturday will be the first time in series history that the two bitter rivals will have squared off in September.

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Both teams have some momentum coming into the matchup. Duke is 3-0 and has Power 5 wins over Northwestern and Baylor. The Tar Heels fell to California and Louisville to open the season but put things together in a 53-23 drubbing of Old Dominion.

Last year, Davis Cutcliffe's crew claimed the Victory Bell, beating Larry Fedora and UNC 28-27 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Duke at North Carolina

When: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel ESPNU

Spread: Duke -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Duke running game

Against Baylor, Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones was not quite himself, completing just 20 of 35 passes with no touchdowns and an interception in the red zone. He also was sacked five times and finished with negative (-14) rushing yards. But no worries: Shaun Wilson had 184 yards on the ground along with a couple of scores, part of Duke’s 302 rushing yards. The much-maligned Tar Heels rush defense did a great job holding down the Old Dominion ground game, but they will be challenged once again by the Blue Devils.

2. Chazz Surratt

There were some questions about Surratt’s status entering the Old Dominion game. Now there is no doubt that Surratt is Carolina’s starting quarterback. The redshirt freshman was very productive against the Monarchs, completing 67 percent of his throws for 257 yards. Beyond the stats, the fact that there is no longer a quarterback controversy has provided some offensive stability and given the team a reason for optimism.

3. North Carolina offensive line vs. Duke defensive line

The Blue Devils would love to see how Carolina’s young quarterback responds to pressure. And pressure is something that Duke has brought in the first three games. The Devils' 10 sacks rank 10th in the nation, with eight different players having taken part in the sack parade. Most likely, the Heels are going to have to throw the ball to win, because their rushing attack is just so-so, and Duke has the best rush defense in America at the moment. Making matters worse, UNC is banged up along the offensive line. The battle up front when Carolina has the ball, both to protect Surratt and to grind out any type of yardage on the ground, will be one to watch.

Final Analysis

Duke definitely regressed last week. After mauling a highly regarded Northwestern squad, the Blue Devils had some difficulties in getting past stumbling Baylor. But despite playing its worst game of the young season, Duke still won by two touchdowns over a Power 5 opponent. This week brings a new challenge; although the Devils are taking a very short bus ride to Saturday’s game, it is still a road game against their biggest rival. The Tar Heels will be ready, armed with the confidence that came from their first win of the season. In a very close game, Duke will make North Carolina one-dimensional on offense by taking advantage of the injuries along the Heels' offensive line. For the Blue Devils, Daniel Jones will return to form both throwing and running, ensuring that the Victory Bell stays in Durham.

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Prediction: Duke 28, North Carolina 27

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.