When Virginia and North Carolina kickoff this year's edition of the South's Oldest Rivalry, it will have huge ACC Coastal Division ramifications even though it is still very early in the season. Virginia was projected to be a middle-of-the-pack ACC team, but two wins to start the year — especially the 42-14 trouncing of Illinois last week — has some optimism bubbling up in Charlottesville. In the wide-open Coastal, a victory this week would make Virginia an instant contender.
The situation is a bit more tenuous for North Carolina. The Tar Heels already have one loss inside the division, and a second defeat to another Coastal foe would be extremely problematic. Carolina stepped up and dispatched of Georgia State this past week, but the preseason division favorites cannot afford to start out 0-2 in the league.
Though North Carolina holds the all-time series lead 64-58-4, Virginia is riding a four-game winning streak into Saturday's contest.
Virginia at No. 21 North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -8
When Virginia Has the Ball
So far this season, it's been the Brennan Armstrong show for the Virginia offense. The junior quarterback was impressive against William & Mary in the opener and was even better against the Big Ten Illini. Armstrong was 27-of-36 for 405 yards and five touchdowns in that victory. A dual-threat option in 2020, the UVA signal-caller has relied mostly on his left arm so far this season.
Billy Kemp IV has always been a reliable target in the passing game, and that is true again this year, but Armstrong has gotten huge support from Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson. The former quarterback has caught 10 balls for 134 yards, and a number of other receivers have gotten involved as well. The running game, led by veteran Wayne Taulapapa, has been solid if not spectacular. The Cavaliers' experienced offensive line has done an outstanding job protecting Armstrong even if the offense is hamstrung in the running game by the lack of explosiveness from the backs.
The North Carolina defense has done its part so far in this season, ranking fifth in the ACC in yards allowed per game while allowing 17 points in both outings. Georgia State did run for 181 yards, but it was on 45 carries and a couple of chunk plays skewed the numbers a bit. What the Carolina defense has not been doing is creating negative plays. Their 32 yards of lost yardage from tackles is 13th in the ACC, only ahead of Duke, and the Heels only have two sacks. As ACC play goes into full swing, the Fox brothers (Tomon and Tomari), Raymond Vohasek, and Jeremiah Gemmel have to become more disruptive.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Fifty-nine points versus Georgia State was exactly what the Carolina offense needed after sputtering Week 1 in Blacksburg. We will find out this week if that improvement was based on strides made by coordinator Phil Longo's unit or if it was the result of the quality of competition. Sam Howell's play certainly was much better, as he completed 21 of 29 passes for 352 yards and three scores while running for a team-leading 104 yards. After relying heavily on Josh Downs in the opener, Howell spread it around a bit more in week two, also involving Antoine Green, Emery Simmons, and tight end Kamari Morales.
There are still some concerns up front. The protection was much better, but Howell was sacked twice in the first half. Also, outside of Howell's rushing total, the Heels amassed just 97 yards on 29 carries. Ty Chandler has been okay this season, averaging five yards per carry, but Howell is the team's leading rusher — and that is not what head coach Mack Brown and his staff want.
It's hard to tell how good a unit will be after just two games, especially when one of those was against an FCS team, but the early returns on Virginia's defense are good. Despite losing some key components from last year, the Cavaliers were impressive in both wins. Linebackers Nick Jackson and Noah Taylor lead the way, with Jackson pacing the team with 19 tackles and Taylor tallying four tackles for lost yardage and two sacks. The UVA defense ranked 123rd against the pass last season, and while that aspect looks to be much improved, Howell and his receivers will provide a massive challenge.
There will be bigger, more attractive matchups on the national scene this weekend, but there aren't many that are as impactful in terms of determining who wins a division title. Carolina wouldn't be finished with a loss to the Cavaliers, but with two Coastal losses, they would have to be perfect the rest of the conference season and pray for luck along the way. For Virginia, this game is more about opportunity. A victory could push the Cavaliers into the Top 25 and put them right in the Coastal conversation. In what should be a great game, Howell and the Carolina passing attack will strike with a couple of big plays and the home team will emerge victorious.
Prediction: North Carolina 24, Virginia 21
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— 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.