North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Virginia Tech Preview and Prediction

High-flying Tar Heels meet motivated Hokies in Frank Beamer's Blacksburg Swan Song

Two huge storylines revolve around Saturday's North Carolina at Virginia Tech matchup. For the Tar Heels, a victory clinches the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division. North Carolina is peaking at the right time with nine straight victories, including back-to-back blowouts of bowl-eligible Miami and Duke.

 

A spot in the College Football Playoff seems unlikely, but if the Tar Heels were to win out, including a victory over current No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, who knows if North Carolina could gain the fourth spot?

 

Virginia Tech's story line doesn't reflect standings so much, though a victory would likely clinch a bowl berth for the Hokies.

 

Rather it is the end of an era; the last home game of Frank Beamer's head coaching tenure at Virginia Tech, which began in 1987.

 

Beamer is the winningest and longest serving active coach in FBS, so Beamer's departure doesn't just close the most glorious coaching chapter in school history, it makes Generation X feel rather old.

 

Much has been said about where the program has gone under Beamer. When he became the coach at Virginia Tech, the Hokies were a major independent in football and a member of the Atlantic 10 in other sports, but credit for rising to the ACC goes mainly to administrators.

 

Nor was Virginia Tech a sad sack prior to Beamer's arrival. The 1986 Gobblers, a more common nickname in that era, were 9-2-1. They capped the season with a 25-24 Peach Bowl victory against Erik Kramer's NC State Wolfpack, who missed winning the ACC by a half-game, on "The Kick" — All-American kicker Chris Kinzer's game ending 40-yard field goal.

 

But it was Virginia Tech's first bowl victory in school history, and the program was heavily in debt under the guidance of head coach/athletic director Bill Dooley, who then departed for Wake Forest. Beamer was allowed the chance to grow as the VPI administration went through turmoil early in his career.

 

Perhaps the turning point was in 1993, the first season a Big East football champion was crowned. Virginia Tech traveled to old Pitt Stadium to play the Panthers for their first conference game.

 

Both teams were 1-0, but Beamer was coming off a 2-8-1 season and the decision to retain him in 1993 wasn't universally popular. Meanwhile John Majors, who had won a national championship at Pitt in 1976, had returned to the Panthers from a successful tenure at Tennessee that saw him win the Southeastern Conference three times.

 

The point spread was even. The final score was Virginia Tech 63, Pitt 21, signifying the directions both programs would take in the future.

 

In two years the Hokies were beating Texas in the Sugar Bowl. In six they were playing for the National Championship with Heisman Trophy winner Michael Vick.

 

Virginia Tech also has been to a bowl game every season since 1993, and a loss to the Tar Heels would require a season ending victory at Virginia to keep that streak alive.

 

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North Carolina at Virginia Tech

 

Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN

Spread: UNC -6

 

Three Things To Watch

 

1. What can Virginia Tech do to slow down the North Carolina offense?

In its last two games, North Carolina has scored 125 points behind quarterback Marquise Williams. No team in ACC history has ever scored more points in back-to-back games.

While some have said halting this streak would do wonders for defensive coordinator Bud Foster's credentials to replace Beamer, it's hard to believe that after 29 years as a Virginia Tech assistant one game is going to make that much of a difference on his resume.

Here are some positives for Virginia Tech. It has as many takeaways as North Carolina — 20. Freshman sensation Adonis Alexander, who leads the Hokies with three interceptions, is back from injury, though he didn't have a tackle last week. And they are the seventh-best team in the country defending the pass without possessing an overwhelming pass rush.

 

2. Can Virginia Tech win the time of possession battle?

Speaking of freshmen sensations, Travon McMillan has rushed for more than 100 yards in his last three games. In the Oct. 17 game against Miami prior to the streak, McMillan rushed for 99.

 

Clearly this streak must continue for Virginia Tech to have a chance. The Tar Heels Achilles' heel has been their rushing defense, as they've allowed more than 200 yards a game on the ground this season. It's how they lost to South Carolina.

 

3. Virginia Tech special teams

During the glory days of Beamer's tenure it always seemed the Hokies would get a blocked punt to help them win. In the 1990s alone they blocked 66 kicks.

 

Unfortunately their kickoff coverage unit now ranks as the third-worst in the country. Yes, there is such a statistic.  

 

The only points not scored by the UNC offense during its scoring splurge was last week's 78-yard punt return for a touchdown from Ryan Switzer, who is probably the best punt returner in the ACC if not college football. Luckily for the Hokies, they defend punt returns well, and Switzer does not return kickoffs.

 

Virginia Tech has blocked two kicks on the season. The Hokies may be losing five games every season these days instead of winning 10, but even so some things really never change.

 

One final note on Beamer's longevity and special teams. When he took on the head coaching reigns many would say the aforementioned placekicker Kinzer was his best player.

 

Kinzer kicked straight ahead, a la Mark Mosley, who would later become Kinzer's agent.

 

Final Analysis

 

It might be nice to the casual onlooker to have Beamer go out with a victory in Blacksburg, but certainly North Carolina fans will disagree. Virginia Tech matches up reasonably well against the Tar Heels, but North Carolina just has too many weapons and, as stated before, is peaking. For old times sake we'll say the Hokies block three extra points and a punt out of the end zone but...

 

Prediction: North Carolina 32, Virginia Tech 26

 

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.

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