The Tar Heels (6-2, 2-2) and Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2) are two of five teams in the Coastal with a pair of conference losses, but both programs have lost games to Virginia Tech and Virginia. A loss on Saturday, combined with the losses to the Hokies and Cavaliers, will essentially force one of these two squads to overcome a two-game deficit in the final three weeks of the season to earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has fielded a unique rushing attack (242.3 yards per game leads the ACC) and a stingy defense (274.8 yards allowed per outing ranks 10th nationally) in his first season in Atlanta. B-back Jonathan Dwyer – serving in a dual fullback/tailback role – has excelled in Johnson’s offense that features the triple option.
The sophomore leads the ACC in yards per carry (6.5) and ranks second in yards per game (99.9), and totaled 145 yards and two touchdowns in last weekend’s victory over Florida State, which included a 66-yard scoring sprint.
"He can take it the whole way, but he's also a tough, physical back," senior safety Trimane Goddard said. "We just have to do our job and read our keys."
North Carolina has put up some impressive numbers as well this fall, ranking 45th nationally in total defense (340 ypg) and tied for first with 17 interceptions (California). The Tar Heels are second in the league with a +1.25 turnover margin, and they have capitalized on those opportunities, scoring 69 points off those miscues
And when facing a rushing juggernaut like Georgia Tech, it’s worth noting that North Carolina has allowed just 187 rushing yards on a 2.4 yards per carry average to its last three opponents.
"When you look at a complete team - offense, defense and special teams - North Carolina might be the best in the league,” Johnson said. “They have gotten contributions from a lot of different people in a lot of areas. UNC has a good mix of talent with some skill guys."
The Tar Heels have benefited from last week’s open date, which has allowed for players such as quarterback T.J. Yates and tight end Zack Pianalto to get healthy for the stretch run, although both players are listed as questionable for Saturday.
But the bye week has also provided its own share of controversy. With Yates’ return seemingly eminent, head coach Butch Davis has been open about Cam Sexton remaining as his starting quarterback, who has completed 73 of his 122 attempts for 964 yards and six touchdowns. Both quarterbacks’ number have been bolstered by the play of junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who has 47 receptions for 782 yards and seven touchdowns.
"[Sexton] deserves it," Yates told reporters on Tuesday. "He's been playing amazing. He's been playing the best I've seen him play since I've been here. He's been playing good, he hasn't been turning the ball over, he's been winning games, so I understand that completely."
And with each job opening that is announced across the country, Davis’ name continues to come up as a leading candidate. Such reports serve as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it shines a positive light on the success UNC’s coaching staff has had in less than 24 months on the job in Chapel Hill, but it also leads to fabricated rumors from rival fan bases in an attempt to thwart the strong momentum North Carolina has created on the recruiting trail.
Davis was asked about the Tennessee job opening following practice on Tuesday, and the second-year head coach told the Associated Press that, “the administration and I are completely and firmly committed to building a championship football program at North Carolina. My family and I are very happy in Chapel Hill."
While those comments may not completely smother the rumor mill flames entirely, it does neutralize them enough for talk to focus on Saturday’s contest rather than if Davis ends up somewhere else in the offseason.
The Tar Heels are hoping for another strong performance in front of a Homecoming crowd at Kenan Stadium, where they are 4-1 this season and 8-3 overall under Davis’ direction. With victories over No. 24 Connecticut (38-12) and No. 23 Boston College (45-24) in October, North Carolina will attempt to do something it has never done before – beat three ranked teams at home in a single season.
Saturday’s kickoff is set for noon (Raycom).