In the preseason AP Top 25, North Carolina was the 10th-ranked team in America and Miami was No. 14. Athlon Sports had the exact same rankings and the Coaches Poll was very similar. The consensus was that the Tar Heels and the Hurricanes were the top two teams in the Coastal Division.
But much has changed in six weeks. Carolina already has three league losses and while Miami is just 0-1 in the ACC, the Hurricanes are 2-3 overall and are battling some substantial injury issues. So instead of this being a game to decide the division title, the matchup between the two teams this Saturday in Chapel Hill is about getting back on the right track.
UNC's high preseason expectations were fueled in large part by the 62-26 pounding they put on the Canes last December, their 13th win in 24 meetings between the two schools.
Miami at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -7
When North Carolina Has the Ball
At No. 28 nationally in scoring offense, the numbers don't look all that bad. But in reality, Phil Longo's unit has been sloppy so far this season, and it starts up front. Last week, Florida State only got to quarterback Sam Howell one time, but on the year he has been sacked an ACC-worst 23 times. Considering that everyone from last year's starting offensive line returned this season, that number is especially appalling.
The line also has been inconsistent in the running game, but because Howell is such a dangerous threat throwing the ball, it is pass pro that is most concerning. When the junior signal-caller has had time, he has made plays, most often to Josh Downs, who is third in America with 49 receptions. Tar Heel fans are still waiting for secondary options to emerge, though Howell hasn't had a ton of time to go through his progressions and Downs is always the first option.
Whether or not Miami can get pressure on Howell remains to be seen. This is not the unit from last year that had Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche on the edges, though on occasion they have created some havoc. Their biggest problem has been getting off the field on third down. Opponents are converting 44 percent of the time, which puts the Canes above only Duke in the ACC. Though Miami has had difficulties stopping the pass, the most talented position grouping is the secondary where Bubba Bolden, Tyrique Stevenson, Gurvan Hall Jr., and Te'Cory Couch can cause problems.
When Miami Has the Ball
The loss of quarterback D'Eriq King to a shoulder injury was a crushing blow for this offense and the Miami team overall. Tyler Van Dyke will be starting his third straight game, and he is going to need some help. Much like Carolina, protection has been a problem for Miami. Their 3.20 sacks allowed per game is 118th and that needs to change if Van Dyke is to have success against quality competition.
Cam'Ron Harris continuing his recent surge would benefit this unit in a big way as well. In the past two games, Harris has totaled 211 yards and four scores on 24 carries. Miami needs to generate some rushing offense to take pressure off the inexperienced Van Dyke, and Harris is the bell cow for the Miami offense. Van Dyke also has the luxury of throwing to two outstanding receivers in Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley. Against FCS Central Connecticut State, Miami was able to open up the downfield passing game, but Virginia limited Van Dyke to just seven yards per attempt. Carolina hasn't given up a lot of big plays in the passing game, but it might behoove Miami to take a few shots.
One of North Carolina's biggest defensive problems has been containing the opposing quarterback, and that doesn't necessarily mean in the passing game. On the year, UNC has given up 348 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns to the opposing quarterbacks. The Heels won't have to worry as much about Van Dyke running as opposed to King, which should help when prepping for this game. But defending the pass hasn't been easy either. In their five ACC contests, the Carolina defense has allowed a 70 percent completion rate. The Heels struggle getting pressure and they haven't defended many passes. That's not a great combination.
Obviously, this is not where either team expected to be coming into the season, so motivation and concentration will be key factors in the outcome of this game. Coming off the ugly loss at home to Florida State, North Carolina has to know that its chances of a Coastal championship are likely gone. While Miami only has that one conference loss, the Canes are 0-3 against Power 5 opponents and King is gone for the year. The difference will be the best player on either team, Howell. Downs will continue to be the key cog in the passing game, and Ty Chandler will chip in with a nice day running the ball as the Heels move up and down the field with ease. Without King, the quarterback run is less of a concern, and while it won't be perfect, the UNC defense will make stops when it needs to. North Carolina will even up its ACC record at 3-3 with a win on Saturday.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Miami 24
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.