The North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Cavaliers have waged war on the gridiron 124 times since their initial meeting in 1892. Depending on who you ask, North Carolina has either won 62 or 63 times in the series, with the UNC forfeiture of the 1956 game in dispute. So there is plenty of tradition in the South's Oldest Rivalry.
The Tar Heels (4-1) come into this contest after thrashing another traditional rival, NC State. It was a welcome showing considering the previous week's loss to Florida State. Virginia (1-4), meanwhile, has struggled early in the season, losing four in a row after beating Duke in the opener. But their best performance may have been last week in a 19-14 loss at Miami.
After losing seven in a row from 2010 through 2016, North Carolina is currently riding a three-game winning streak in the series.
No. 15 North Carolina at Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -7
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The North Carolina offense took it to another level against NC State. With 326 rushing yards and 252 passing, the Heels did whatever they wanted to the Wolfpack. That has become the main positive for the UNC offense: their balance allows them to exploit any defensive weakness.
Against Virginia this weekend, it will probably be the aerial attack that takes center stage. The Cavaliers have been solid at stopping the run, giving up just 133 yards per game on 3.3 yards a rush. But three teams have thrown for more than 300 yards on the Hoos, including Miami in last Saturday's contest. The first order of business for UVA will be to get pressure on UNC quarterback Sam Howell. Virginia's rugged linebacking quartet of Nick Jackson, Zane Zandier, Charles Snowden, and Noah Taylor have combined for 19 tackles for lost yardage, but they have to be even more disruptive this week.
If Howell has time to throw, it could spell doom for the Cavaliers. Wide receiver Dyami Brown had his best game of 2020 last week against NC State, catching seven passes for 105 yards. Now is time for fellow pass-catcher Dazz Newsome to become re-engaged with this offense. Howell is averaging 9.5 yards per attempt, which is good for 15th nationally. But if the wideouts can make more of an impact, that number could climb even higher.
When Virginia Has the Ball
After a couple of games of playing quarterbacks with crazy numbers, starter Brennan Armstrong was back last Saturday at Miami. He put forth a solid effort, passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 91 more. Still, Virginia scored just 14 points.
Outside of the season-opening win over Duke in which they put 38 on the board, points have been a problem for UVA. Interestingly, their 412 yards of total offense is a 23-yard per game increase over last year. But the Cavs' scoring is down eight points per game. Part of the problem has been a minus-five turnover margin, but the biggest issue has been moving the chains on third downs. Last year the Cavaliers were second in the ACC, converting on third down 45 percent of the time. This year that number is under 33 percent, which puts them 14th in the ACC.
Virginia's offensive line has only allowed nine sacks in their five games, which is tied for the best mark in the ACC. They will be tested this Saturday by an aggressive North Carolina defense. Linebacker Chazz Surratt leads the team in tackles and is tied for the lead in sacks, and the Fox brothers, Tomon and Tomari, have combined for seven sacks and 12 tackles for lost yardage.
But the Carolina defense has been stung at times by both the run and the pass. Virginia Tech ran for 260 yards and Florida State 241 while NC State and Boston College exceeded 300 yards through the air. The difference is that in the games against the Wolfpack and Eagles, the Tar Heels completely shut down the run, forcing those two teams to throw. Controlling Virginia running back Wayne Taulapapa and Armstrong when he runs, will be a key component of this game as that will allow Carolina to pin its ears back and come after the passer.
Virginia played hard in the loss to Miami, but the team is reeling after losing four games in a row. Cavs head coach Bronco Mendenhall has to make sure that the team stays focused and believes there is still a goal to achieve. The goal for North Carolina is crystal clear. At 4-1 in the league, North Carolina remains one of the major contenders for a spot in the ACC Championship Game. While Carolina has not looked as good on the road as they have at home so far this fall, they are the more talented and more motivated team. And that combination will be too much for Virginia to overcome.
Prediction: North Carolina 37, Virginia 20
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions
— 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.