When North Carolina kicks off on Friday with NC State, the Tar Heels will have no idea of their ACC fate. Carolina needs a Virginia Tech loss to Virginia to have a shot at the Coastal title but that outcome will not be determined until 24 hours later. Despite the uncertainty with regards to their chances in the division, one thing is sure. Without a win over the archrival Wolfpack, nothing else matters.
The guys from Raleigh have a completely different mind set. After beating Notre Dame on Oct. 8 to move to 4-1, NC State has lost five of six and now needs a win over North Carolina to become bowl eligible. As a result, there are questions as to whether Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren will return in 2017.
In a series that dates back to 1894, the Tar Heels hold a 66-33-6 advantage.
NC State at North Carolina
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 25 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -12
Three Things to Watch
1. Matt Dayes and the NC State Running Game
The senior from Weston, Fla., has been asked to carry a heavy load this year. Dayes has amassed 1,015 of the Wolfpack’s 1,630 rushing yards this season. What makes Dayes so important this week is that North Carolina’s run defense has been consistently poor for the past three seasons while the Tar Heels have solid against the pass. So Dayes will get plenty of opportunities and the only way that quarterback Ryan Finley will be effective throwing the ball is if Dayes can soften up Carolina by running the ball.
2. North Carolina Will Throw and Throw and Throw
Every team wants to achieve offensive balance. But the Tar Heels are averaging about 150 rushing yards per game while the Wolfpack are ranked in the top nationally against the run. But NC State has not fared as well against the pass, which is something North Carolina’s offense does very well. Look for Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora to come up with a game plan that has Mitch Trubisky throwing early and often. The Wolfpack will have their hands full covering Ryan Switzer and the Carolina’s stable of pass catchers. Pressuring Trubisky will be key, although he’s capable of making something happen with his legs too.
3. Tar Heels’ Advantage on Special Teams
North Carolina has the edge in just about every aspect of special teams. NC State has struggled in the kicking game while Tar Heels kicker Nick Weiler has been solid and clutch this season. The Wolfpack have not done a great job returning punts; UNC is tops in the country when it comes to punt coverage. Switzer has been a dangerous punt returner for his entire career and T.J. Logan has run two kickoffs back for scores this year. In a game like this where NC State is a decided underdog, the Wolfpack need to turn the tables and make something happen on special teams.
So much of this game will be determined by the psyche of the two teams. The Tar Heels still have a chance at a repeat ACC Coastal Division title, but they know that they don’t control their own destiny. But it is the mental state of the other team that will have a greater impact on the outcome. NC State found itself in a pretty good spot midway through the year, but still needs one more win to have any chance of going to a bowl game. Is that enough motivation for this Wolfpack team? It is true that playing the team from down the road should be all the motivation they need. But when adversity hits, how will Dave Doeren’s team respond?
On what is supposed to be a nice day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky will have a big game throwing the ball, something that NC State’s offense just can’t match. Matt Dayes will do his damage on the ground, but the Tar Heels win easily and then turn their attention to the Virginia-Virginia Tech game on Saturday.
Prediction: North Carolina 41, NC State 21
— 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.