UNC will likely know if it's still alive in the Coastal Division race before kickoff arrives on Saturday as Georgia Tech hosts Miami at noon. The Tar Heels would need to win their final three games and receive help in the form of a Yellow Jacket win over the Hurricanes and then a Miami victory over Virginia Tech next weekend to earn a spot in the ACC Championship game on Dec. 4. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, can clinch the Coastal Division crown by winning two of its final three games.
Both teams are in the midst of hot streaks, combining to win 13 of their last 14 games. Frank Beamer’s squad has won seven straight since season-opening losses to No. 4 Boise State and FCS member James Madison, while North Carolina has won six of its last seven despite having 159 combined games lost due to injuries and the ongoing NCAA investigation.
Running back Johnny White broke his clavicle against Florida State last weekend and will officially become the 32nd Tar Heel to miss a game on Saturday.
"There's a tendency for people to bond tightly when they get threatened and challenged and you're facing adversity and don't have anybody to depend on but yourself," UNC head coach Davis said on Thursday. "I think that's a great story and they've done more than I could have ever hoped for."
With White out for the season and backup Shaun Draughn (386 yards, 4 TD) nursing a sprained ankle, Davis has been forced to consider removing Ryan Houston’s red-shirt with only three regular season games left on the schedule and fullback Anthony Elzy and reserve tailback as the lone remaining options in the offensive backfield.
A source close to the program told Inside Carolina on Friday morning that Draughn would play against Virginia Tech, which would appear to drastically reduce the probability of Houston taking the field.
North Carolina’s offense has been revitalized this season thanks to the strong play of fifth-year senior quarterback T.J. Yates, who ranks 20th nationally in passing efficiency (153.4) in completing 180 of his 271 passes for 2,312 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Marietta, Ga. native’s school-record 439 yards against Florida State last Saturday makes him the only Tar Heel with two 400-yard passing games in school history.
"We're very confident as an offense," Yates said. "We've had success on [the Hokies] the past two years. So going into this game, it's going to be fun."
Virginia Tech has become known over the past decade for playing “Beamer Ball,” an approach that emphasizes special teams every bit as much as offense and defense. The statistics bear out that success this season as well as the Hokies rank in the top-40 nationally in net punting (37.9), kickoff returns (24.0) and punt returns (14.5). Those numbers fall in line with Virginia Tech ranking in the top-40 nationally in 10 offensive and defensive categories, including scoring offense (36.0 ppg, 16th) and scoring defense (20.1 ppg, 28th).
“They are really good in all three phases,” Davis said. “When you play against Virginia Tech you’d better be very prepared in your fundamentals and execution in all three phases. I think our kids have learned that over the last couple of years that you have to execute and watch a lot of film and really understand what they’re trying to do.”
Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor serves as the ACC’s only quarterback with better statistics than Yates, ranking eighth nationally in passing efficiency (163.3) in completing 121 of his 191 passing attempts for 1,739 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and that doesn’t even include his team-leading 64.9 rushing yards per game. All-ACC running backs Darren Evans (515 yards, 9 TD) and Ryan Williams (179 yards, 5 TD) complete the three-pronged rushing attack that North Carolina will encounter on Saturday.
The Tar Heel defense, despite an unprecedented amount of personnel losses, ranks 44th nationally in total defense (343.8 ypg) and 47th in scoring defense (22.3 ppg).
“They’re very athletic,” Taylor said of UNC’s defense. “They all run well and get to the ball very fast. We’re going to have to do a good job staying on blocks, and as far as pass protection, staying on blocks (gives) an extra second to get our receivers open.”
Adding to the importance of this rapidly-heating rivalry is the wealth of elite-caliber recruits that will be in Chapel Hill on Saturday to watch the game. Roughly three dozen significant prospects will be on the sidelines, including more than a half-dozen players hailing from Virginia.
But Beamer downplayed the notion of one contest factoring into a recruit’s decision earlier this week, saying, “I don’t know if one particular game tells a kid ‘I should go to Virginia Tech’ or ‘I should go to North Carolina – I think history, where they grew up, how they grew up, maybe where the programs are, that has an effect on it.”
A win on Saturday would tie Davis with Bill Dooley among UNC head coaches for the second-most wins (7) over ranked opponents. Mack Brown tops the list with 11 wins over ranked teams in 10 years at the helm. Dooley needed 11 years to reach his seven-win mark. Davis is currently in his fourth year at North Carolina.