Tough Closing Stretch

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina has completed two-thirds of its 2010 season, and now enters a brutal November that features three straight ranked opponents and a season finale trip to Durham to battle archrival Duke.

The Tar Heel coaching staff tracks how many hours their players spend watching game film every week. If you watched UNC's come-from-behind 21-17 victory over FCS opponent William & Mary last Saturday, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that the Tar Heels set a new season low in total hours spent breaking down the Tribe's game film.

Quarterback T.J. Yates admitted on Monday that the team didn't have its best practices and lacked focus leading up to last weekend's Homecoming contest. But while the Tar Heels (5-3, 2-2 ACC) may have had difficulties in getting up for William & Mary, that shouldn't be a problem for a November slate that includes No. 24 Florida State (6-2, 4-1 ACC), No. 20 Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-0 ACC), No. 23 N.C. State (6-2, 3-1 ACC) and Duke (2-6, 0-4 ACC).

Next up is North Carolina's first trip to Tallahassee since the Seminoles defeated UNC, 38-16, in 2004.

"It's going to be a better atmosphere, a better energy going into the week of practice and into the game as well," Yates said. "I know a lot of guys have never played a Florida State, so it's going to be more exciting with a new atmosphere. That gives you a little more pep in your step during practice and in preparation during the week."

It appeared as though North Carolina had fallen out of the Coastal Division race with its second conference loss of the season at Miami two weeks ago, but the Hurricanes stumbled against Virginia and joins UNC and Georgia Tech with two notches in the loss column.

"It raised some eyebrows and gives us a little bit of hope," Yates said of Miami's loss in Charlottesville. "Nobody really knows what's going to happen until the last week in this conference, especially in the Coastal because everybody is beating everybody… We can't get caught up looking at the future and at the outcomes because a lot of stuff still has to happen."

Virginia Tech has a commanding lead with a 4-0 mark in ACC play, but the Hokies's final month includes trips to Miami and Chapel Hill, as well as home contests against Georgia Tech and Virginia.

Since the first ACC tiebreaker is combined head-to-head records, UNC's best opportunity to win the Coastal would be to win out and have either Miami or Georgia Tech defeat Virginia Tech. Whichever of those two teams defeated the Hokies would then need to lose to the other on Nov. 13, in effect leaving North Carolina and Virginia Tech as the only Coastal teams with 6-2 conference records and UNC holding the lone tiebreaker.

Of course, those puzzle pieces require a lot of help and a little bit of luck, but the Tar Heels lost the option to minimize the formula with the pair of losses to their division foes.

"You want to control your own destiny," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "You don't want to leave it in the hands of other teams to beat other people."

It doesn't help North Carolina's cause that cornerback Terry Shankle (ACL) was added to the injury pile on Saturday. The red-shirt freshman will be the sixth cornerback to miss a game this fall and the 30th Tar Heel overall. Cornerbacks Mywan Jackson (thigh) and Tre Boston (ankle) sat out against William & Mary and their availability against Florida State will not be determined until later this week.

With two-year starting cornerback Charles Brown already out due to his academic suspension related to the program's investigation, the Tar Heels enter the final month of the season undermanned in the secondary with the ACC's top-three players in total offense (N.C. State's Russell Wilson, Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor and Duke's Sean Renfree) on the schedule, and that doesn't even include Seminoles quarterback Christian Ponder (127-of-210 passing, 1,383 yards, 13 TD, 7 INT).

Davis indicated that the lack of numbers in the secondary has limited his staff's ability to change into certain pass-specific defensive packages, but 2009 All-ACC cornerback Kendric Burney believes the defensive backfield can overcome those concerns.

"With our safety support and with Deunta [Williams], Da'Norris [Searcy] and me finally back, we can still get into certain nickel and dime packages that we need to get into," Burney said. "Coach will find a way to work things out and we'll be alright."

Transitive properties do not exist in sports, and the month of October provided a flawless example of that fact. On Oct. 9, Florida State throttled Miami, 45-17, exactly one week before North Carolina dismantled Virginia, 44-10. On Oct. 23, the Hurricanes blasted the Tar Heels, 33-10, and then in nearly completing the circle, Miami fell to the Cavaliers, 24-19, last weekend in Charlottesville.

In other words, the ACC conference race is still anybody's ballgame. All you have to do is win and get a little help from your enemies.

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