If you like offense and good quarterback play, then Saturday’s game between North Carolina and Miami is a must-see matchup for college football’s Week 15 slate. The Tar Heels and Hurricanes both average more than 34 points a game and feature two of the nation’s top quarterbacks in D’Eriq King (Miami) and Sam Howell (North Carolina). While both teams are out of the College Football Playoff picture, this game does have some national implications. If Clemson and Notre Dame both make the playoff, the winner of this game is likely to end up in the Orange Bowl.
Mack Brown is off to a strong start in his return to Chapel Hill. After a 7-6 mark last year, the Tar Heels have already matched that win total with two contests left in 2020. The high-powered offense led by quarterback Sam Howell has paved the way once again, and this team is just a couple of plays away from 9-1 with two defeats coming by three points (Florida State and Virginia). As expected, North Carolina cruised to an easy 49-9 win over FCS member Western Carolina last week, which was a good opportunity to work in some of the younger players and develop depth. A win against Miami would cap another solid year for Brown, as well as continue to help the program build momentum for 2021.
Miami finished a disappointing 6-7 last season, but coach Manny Diaz wasted no time hitting the reset button. The ‘Canes brought in a handful of impact transfers for instant help, including quarterback D’Eriq King and defensive end Quincy Roche. Those moves have paid big dividends. Miami is 8-1 so far, with its only loss coming at Clemson (42-17). COVID-19 issues sidelined the Hurricanes after a win at Virginia Tech on Nov. 14, but Diaz’s program returned to action last Saturday with a dominant 48-0 win at Duke.
North Carolina holds a 12-11 series edge over Miami. The Tar Heels won 28-25 in Chapel Hill last season. However, prior to that matchup, the Hurricanes won two in a row (2017-18).
North Carolina at Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Miami -3
When North Carolina Has the Ball
It’s no secret this side of the ball is the strength for North Carolina. The Tar Heels enter Saturday’s game ranked second in the ACC in scoring (41.1 ppg) and first in yards per play (7.5). Just one team (Notre Dame) held the Tar Heels under six yards a snap in a game this fall. The passing game behind quarterback Sam Howell generates most of the attention, but coordinator Phil Longo’s group has plenty of balance behind a ground attack generating 218.6 rushing yards a contest.
After a terrific true freshman campaign, Howell is even better as a sophomore. Howell’s completion percentage has climbed to 68.8 (up from 61.4), while completing 205 passes for 3,129 yards and 26 scores. He leads all ACC quarterbacks with 25 completions of 30 yards or more, has only six picks over 10 games, and has chipped in 116 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Notre Dame’s defense was the only group to hold Howell below 220 passing yards (211) this season.
Containing Howell and the high-powered North Carolina offense starts with the battle in the trenches for Miami. The ‘Canes have two of the ACC’s top pass rushers in Jaelan Phillips (7.5 sacks) and Quincy Roche (four). Those two players have combined for 28 tackles for a loss this fall and are a big reason why this defense is holding teams to just 5.1 yards per play and is allowing 22 points a game. Getting to Howell is crucial due to the situation in the secondary. While the Hurricanes rank third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, this unit will be without cornerback Al Blades Jr. for the rest of the 2020 season due to myocarditis. DJ Ivey and Te’Cory Couch will handle the bulk of the duties at cornerback, but there’s a big drop-off in experience to the next group of options. Dyami Brown (51 catches), Dazz Newsome (46), Khafre Brown (13), and Emery Simmons (15) provide a handful of options to stretch the field and test the depth in Miami’s secondary. North Carolina has allowed 29 sacks this year, so there should be opportunities for Phillips, Roche and the other linemen to pressure Howell before he has a chance to connect downfield.
In addition to the ability to move the chains with big plays through the air, North Carolina can punish teams with a strong one-two punch at running back. Michael Carter paces the team with 937 rushing yards, but Javonte Williams isn’t far behind (904) and has scored 16 times on the ground. Miami ranks fifth in the ACC against the run, holding teams to just 3.86 yards per carry.
When Miami Has the Ball
North Carolina ranks ahead on the stat sheet for scoring and yards per play, but Miami isn’t too far behind. The Hurricanes enter Saturday’s showdown ranked third in the ACC in scoring (34.9) and average 6.02 yards a snap. After a sluggish year offensively in 2019, two moves helped Diaz get this group on track. Rhett Lashlee was hired from SMU to implement a spread attack, and the arrival of quarterback D’Eriq King from Houston solidified the quarterback position.
Through nine contests, King has connected on 64 percent of his throws for 2,334 yards and 20 touchdowns to just four predictions. The senior has delivered in the clutch for the Hurricanes, including a five-touchdown performance in a 44-41 win over NC State and 255 yards in a 25-24 victory against Virginia Tech. King’s accuracy and ability to effectively distribute the ball in space has allowed Miami to take better advantage of its playmakers on the outside. Additionally, his legs (467 yards) add another element for the defense to defend.
Receiver Mike Harley has emerged as King’s favorite target (43 catches), with Mark Pope (29) and Dee Wiggins (30) rounding out the key contributors on the outside. Miami boasts one of the top tight end tandems in the nation, as Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory have combined for eight touchdowns and 40 receptions. The Tar Heels rank sixth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, and the defensive front has been able to generate 30 sacks. However, this group has been vulnerable to big plays. In nine contests this fall, the Tar Heels have surrendered 23 pass plays of 30 yards or more. Similar to Miami’s defense, North Carolina has to find ways to disrupt King’s timing and not allow the senior to get to the edge and make plays with his legs. Making King throw from the pocket all night would be a win for this defense.
Miami’s offensive line and ground game will have to contend with an active North Carolina front. Linebacker Chazz Surratt (7.5 tackles for a loss) is disruptive, with teammates Tomon Fox (nine), Tomari Fox (six), and Raymond Vohasek (six) poised to challenge an offense that averages only 4.3 yards per carry and has only eclipsed more than 201 rushing yards just once in ACC play. Cam’Ron Harris (567 yards), Donald Chaney (267), and Jaylan Knighton (209) will handle the work at running back on Saturday.
Much like Miami, North Carolina has to aim to get stops with havoc plays (sacks and tackles for a loss), create turnovers, as well get off the field on third down and limit scoring opportunities inside the red zone.
Expect a lot of offense and quarterback play at a high level on Saturday afternoon. Howell and King trading big plays in the passing game for four quarters should add up to one of the better games during Week 15. Considering the firepower on both rosters, this matchup really comes down to whichever defense can get enough timely stops or create a couple of takeaways. Miami’s ability to get pressure with its front four could be valuable late to generate a stop in the fourth quarter that helps to seal the game. The ACC title game is already decided, but an Orange Bowl bid is potentially at stake, and there’s also revenge on the mind of the Hurricanes after losing in Chapel Hill last fall. Expect a close one, but Miami edges North Carolina at home.
Prediction: Miami 38, North Carolina 34
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions