Tar Heels take on the Hokies in Blacksburg
Six of the seven ACC Coastal teams still have a realistic shot at winning the division and two of those contenders meet up on Saturday when North Carolina visits Virginia Tech. In their last game two weeks ago, the Tar Heels beat Georgia Tech to get to 2-1 in the conference and now share the division lead with Duke and Virginia.
The Hokies are 4-2 overall and just a game behind the leaders in the Coastal, but so far this season has to be considered a bit of a disappointment. Tech's wins over Old Dominion, Furman, and Rhode Island were all one-score games at some point in the fourth quarter and the Hokies were embarrassed at home on a Friday night by Duke. But the first-half performance against Miami showed that they have the talent to contend in the division.
Virginia Tech leads the all-time series 23-12-6 and has won five of the last six contests.
North Carolina at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Raycom Sports/ESPN Extra
Spread: North Carolina -3.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Sam Howell threw the ball 51 times and completed 33, totaling 376 yards and four touchdowns against Georgia Tech. Early in the season, offensive coordinator Phil Longo tried to ease the true freshman into the flow, only opening things up for Howell when needed late in games. But those days are obviously over and quarterback now has the full trust of the coaching staff.
That's not to say that the Tar Heels' offensive balance no longer exists. It does, as evidenced by Javonte Williams' 144 yards versus the Yellow Jackets. Michael Carter has chipped in with 387 yards on the season to go along with the 492 put up by Williams, giving Carolina a reliable 1-2 punch in the running game. The offensive line has given up 20 sacks on the season, but has done a better job protecting Howell in recent weeks and has been consistently opening up holes in the running game all year.
It's a tricky spot for a Virginia Tech defense that in recent weeks has done well against the run, but also struggled to stop Duke and Old Dominion on the ground. The Hokies' pass defense numbers aren't bad, but in the last two weeks they gave up 469 yards through the air against Miami and FCS Rhode Island threw for 286. Bud Foster's defense has to go into this game with the mindset that they have to hold up against the run first because if Williams and Carter are gaining chunks at a time, it will make life easier for Howell and his gifted pass catchers. The big guys up front are going to have to engage the offensive line so linebackers Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollified can attack the ball carriers.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
He has only completed 55 percent of his passes, but quarterback Hendon Hooker has given the offense a new look. After averaging 23 points per game in the first four, Virginia Tech has put up 42 and 34 in their two outings with Hooker running the show. The sophomore from Greensboro, North Carolina, has not turned the ball over and has been a factor in the running game as well. But his biggest attribute has been his ability to push the ball down the field.
It is helpful that wide receiver Damon Hazelton has returned to form and this week the Hokies should get back Tre Turner, who has missed the last two games. It is also nice that Deshawn McClease is giving the team something in the running game. The offensive line has done a decent job this season considering all the injuries that have led to inexperienced players becoming important components up front. This week, the line will be facing a rugged group of Tar Heel defenders.
The Carolina defense doesn't bring a lot of pressure and they don't make a whole lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. But coordinator Jay Bateman's group is fundamentally sound and has gotten better each week. Any team that can hold Clemson to just 331 total yards has some talented guys on defense and linebacker Chazz Surratt and linemen Tomon Fox and Aaron Crawford can be disruptive.
The Carolina turnaround is quite amazing, especially considering that the injuries continue to pile up. This week, four key Heels are listed as questionable and stalwart defensive back Patrice Rene is already sidelined for the year. But Mack Brown's team seems unfazed. They have had to deal with high-stress situations on a regular basis and though not each game has turned out the way they wanted, Carolina has acquitted themselves quite well. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, hasn't yet shown that same level of competitiveness. Yes, the Hokies responded at the end of the Miami game, but in reality, the outcome should never have been in doubt. And their play in the other five games ranged from mediocre to woeful. In the Coastal this year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Virginia Tech rose up and won this game, making a muddled mess of the standings. But I'm going with the team that's been more consistent this season, and that is North Carolina.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, Virginia Tech 28
— 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.