Wake Forest checked in at No. 9 in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings and it begins the most difficult portion of its schedule by going to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina this Saturday. The Demon Deacons (8-0, 5-0 ACC) are coming off a 45-7 destruction of Duke, and with their undefeated record and lofty ranking, each remaining game is vital.
Coming into the season, North Carolina expected to be where Wake is now. However, the Heels are 4-4 after falling in South Bend to Notre Dame last Saturday night. But at 3-3 in the league and with a game against first-place Pittsburgh remaining, Carolina is not completely out of the ACC Coastal race.
Interestingly, though, this game won't matter in the ACC standings. This is the second of two contests that were set up as non-conference games between the two programs since it comes in addition to their regularly scheduled eight ACC games. In 2019, Wake Forest won at home in the other non-league game. Last year, in an official ACC clash, the Heels won a wild 59-53 shootout at Kenan Stadium.
No. 9 Wake Forest at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -2.5
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
The Demon Deacons' offense has not been slowed down all year. They are fifth nationally in scoring offense and have put at least 35 points on the board in every game this season. Veteran quarterback Sam Hartman is the unquestioned leader of the unit, and he has put together a sensational 2021 season. With a 65 percent completion rate, a 22:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and an average of 9.9 yards per pass attempt, he'll be a candidate for several postseason honors.
Of course, big passing numbers for the quarterback equate to big totals for the receivers. Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry are putting up all-league numbers this year as the dynamic duo have combined for 1,453 yards and 14 scores through the first eight games. Head coach Dave Clawson loves to rotate running backs and this year there are three viable options carrying the ball, with Christian Beal-Smith leading the way with 492 yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Obviously, North Carolina's defense has a lot to worry about this week. Considering the recent performances by coordinator Jay Bateman's group, that could be a big problem. Since holding Georgia State to 17 points in week two, the only UNC opponent to score less than 35 points against the Heels was Duke on Oct. 2. Last week, Notre Dame averaged more than seven yards per rush and hung 44 on the Tar Heels. Carolina needs to have a better effort up front this week. Also, the matchup between Wake's star receivers and Carolina defensive backs Tony Grimes and Cedric Gray is key.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
He may not win the Heisman or be the top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, but Sam Howell is still a really good quarterback. Beyond his splendid passing ability, Howell is extremely tough to bring down and has an outside shot to crack the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. The line has not had a great year when it comes to pass protection, but Howell's knack for breaking tackles has bailed the offense out on numerous occasions and called quarterback runs have given this attack a different element.
The standard running game is coming along as well with Ty Chandler also eyeing 1,000 yards for the year. Sophomore D.J. Jones has also shown that he can pitch in as well to spell Chandler when needed. That is important to take the pressure off not only Chandler but also Howell. While Howell's running stats look pretty, limiting the number of hits he takes should be a priority going forward. Another bright spot for the UNC offense on Saturday night was the five-catch, 83-yard effort of Antoine Green. Once again, Josh Downs was the primary target most of the night, but seeing someone else step up was encouraging.
Much like Carolina's defense trying to stop Wake, the Demon Deacons' defense should also be concerned going into the game. Prior to holding down Duke this past week — stopping Duke seems to be a common theme — Wake Forest had allowed more than 500 yards of total offense in four straight games. They are 11th in the ACC in total defense and have survived because of one factor: turnovers. Wake Forest is No. 4 nationally in turnover margin and has more takeaways than any team in the ACC. The Deacs will pressure opponents and can create havoc in many ways. That also has led to giving up 124 plays of 10-plus yards this season.
If you like offense, I'd suggest tuning into ABC at noon ET on Saturday. These are two teams with explosive offenses and questionable defenses, so yards and points should be plentiful. While not a conference game, North Carolina needs to get things going back in the right direction. At this point, both winning the division and missing out on a bowl game are on the table. The stakes are certainly much higher for Wake Forest, but the question looms, how will the Demon Deacons handle success? Their schedule has not been difficult so far, and as a top-10 team, they now become a target. I think their long-shot College Football Playoff dreams end this week. In another crazy game, Carolina pulls off the upset.
Prediction: North Carolina 59, Wake Forest 53
Podcast: Week 10 Predictions, CFB Playoff Rankings Debate and Conference Expansion News
— 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.