When analyzing North Carolina and Virginia entering the 127th meeting in the South's Oldest Rivalry, you will find two polar opposite football teams. The 17th-ranked Tar Heels come in at 7-1 (4-0 ACC), riding a four-game winning streak spurred by a dominant offense. If things break perfectly this weekend, Mack Brown's charges could clinch the ACC Coastal Division.
On the other side, UVA (3-5, 1-4) has had difficulty scoring points all year long and has dropped four of its last five games. Year 1 of the Tony Elliott regime has not gone as planned, and the Cavaliers find themselves tied with Virginia Tech for last place in the division. At this point, bowl eligibility appears to be a pipe dream, and finding a way to win a game, especially after falling in quadruple overtime to Miami last week, is all that really matters.
Depending on which side you ask, the all-time series records differ. But both programs agree that North Carolina has the overall edge, although Virginia has won four of the past five meetings.
No. 17 North Carolina at Virginia
When North Carolina Has the Ball
In a season of one spectacular performance after another, Drake Maye put on his best show last Saturday night versus Pittsburgh. Down 24-14 midway through the third quarter in a game where North Carolina was having little success running the ball, the redshirt freshman quarterback completely took control, guiding the Tar Heels on four straight touchdown drives and to an eventual 18-point victory. His stats are staggering and his play in the big moments has been the difference in multiple games this fall.
With Josh Downs and Antoine Green leading the way, Maye has plenty of receiving targets. But if this offense is going to get to another level, there has to be improvement in the running game. While the overall average of 168 rushing yards per game does not look all that bad, the fact that Maye is the team's leading rusher is not a good sign. In the Pitt game, Maye had 61 of the team's 86 yards, and that is not what offensive coordinator Phil Longo is looking for.
Surprisingly, a UVA defense that was 121st in the nation last season in total defense has been the strength of the team in 2022. An interesting battle is at hand as Maye and his receiving mates will take on Virginia's stingy pass defense, one that is third in the ACC allowing just 193 yards per game. With Chico Bennett Jr., Nick Jackson, and Aaron Faumui setting the pace, the Cavaliers are tied for eighth nationally with 26 sacks. Also, corners Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress II rank 1-2 in the ACC in passes defended. The run defense has been inconsistent, but considering Carolina's issues on the ground, all eyes will be on UVA's pass coverage.
When Virginia Has the Ball
While the improved play of the defense has been a pleasant development, the puzzling regression of the Virginia offense has been a major disappointment. The Cavaliers have not scored more than 20 points against an FBS opponent all season, and their 16.9 points per game checks in at 123rd nationally. In 2021, UVA scored nearly 35 points a game and the unit returned quarterback Brennan Armstrong as well as his primary pass catchers. Yes, the Cavs haven't run the ball well, but they didn't last year either. So what has gone wrong?
As it often does, the issues start up front. Virginia had to replace all five offensive linemen after last season, and there have been a lot of growing pains. The unit has allowed 25 sacks on the year, and Armstrong has been pressured into poor decisions many other times. While the veteran quarterback is hardly immune from criticism considering his play so far, you have to wonder if he is rattled by the constant harassment. As a result, the Cavs rank near the bottom of the charts in both red zone scoring and touchdown rate.
While the UNC defense has hardly been special this fall, there were some huge positives to take out of the Pitt game. Maye cannot put up four consecutive touchdowns in the second half if the defense isn't making stops, and for much of the last 30 minutes, Gene Chizik's unit had the Panthers on their heels. Israel Abanikanda had 127 rushing yards, but much of that was in the first half as Pitt finished with 131 total. Carolina held quarterback Kedon Slovis to a 45 percent completion rate despite sacking him just once. The secondary, led by Storm Duck, had its most complete performance of the season and has some momentum going into Charlottesville.
After last week's crushing loss to Miami, Virginia can't have the best mindset entering the homestretch of the 2022 season. The offense is anemic, and there is no sign that it is going to get any better soon. And here come the Tar Heels, with sights set on a December showdown with Clemson to determine the ACC champion. UNC knows a win this weekend all but assures its spot in the conference championship game, and in this type of rivalry game, no Heel will be looking ahead. But it's a rivalry game for Virginia, too, and the Cavaliers will again be stout on defense to start the game. I do think the UVA offense will have some success as well, but at some point late in the second quarter or early in the third, Maye will put Carolina up by more than one score and the game will be over. North Carolina beats Virginia for the second straight year and inches closer to the Coastal crown.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Virginia 17
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– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
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