North Carolina plays at Florida State on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, where the Tar Heels will try to do what no UNC team has done since 2001: defeat a top-15 team on the road. Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? That depends on a lot of variables going UNC's way .
Some things to watch while the Tar Heels embark on a quest to return with an improbable victory:
1. The Tar Heels' rushing defense vs. Dalvin Cook.
You're tired of hearing about it. Gene Chizik is tired of answering questions about it. Shoot, I'm tired of writing about it, really. But UNC's inability to defend the run run remains a primary story line, a primary line of demarcation between success and failure. When the Tar Heels have had defensive success against the run, they've put themselves in position to win.
And when they haven't, well – it's been the main reason why they've found trouble this season. Dalvin Cook, the Florida State junior, is going to get his yards on Saturday. The question is how many. UNC has little hope in limiting him the way, say, Louisville did two weeks ago.
Nonetheless, there's a big difference between allowing 150 yards, which UNC might be OK with, relatively speaking, and the 267 yards that USF allowed Cook last week. Chizik, the Tar Heels' defensive coordinator, said his guys would play better against the run this week.
He's been saying that for weeks, though, and UNC is 118th nationally in run defense. This week, the emphasis has been on swarming Cook and limiting his one-on-one opportunities in space, where UNC would have little chance against him. Can the Tar Heels get it together enough to give themselves a chance? That's all they need to do.
2. Mitch Trubisky and UNC's deep passing game against a struggling Florida State secondary.
A surprising stat, and one that bodes well for UNC: Florida State ranks 116th nationally in yards per passing attempt allowed. The Seminoles are giving up an average of nearly 9 yards per passing attempt.
Mitch Trubisky, the UNC quarterback, is averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. Trubisky is a different player than he was a month ago, when he looked nervous and out of sorts in that season-opening defeat against Georgia.
He's comfortable now, and confident, and what he did last week during the final drive of that comeback victory against Pittsburgh should serve him well for the rest of the season, and beyond. With Derwin James continuing to be out for Florida State, Trubisky and his receivers will have their chances on Saturday.
Connect they must, for UNC to have a shot. Another promising stat, by the way, for the Tar Heels: Florida State has allowed 14 plays of at least 30 yards. Only two teams nationally have allowed more.
3. UNC's offensive line against Florida State's talented defensive line.
Chris Kapilovic, the Tar Heels' offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, was talking earlier this week about DeMarcus Walker, the Florida State defensive end.
“A freak,” Kapilovic said, before praising Walker's ability to take over Florida State's game against Mississippi at the start of the season. Walker finished with 4.5 sacks.
He's had one since but don't let that fool you. Walker is capable at any time of replicating what he did during the season-opener. This will be the greatest test UNC's offensive line has faced this season. And the line hasn't played particularly well, relative to expectations.
It hasn't been bad, necessarily. Just not quite as strong as it looked like it could be. And now here come the Seminoles, who own a significant talent advantage at that particular match-up – their defensive line against UNC's offensive line.
Kapilovic emphasized the importance of UNC's tempo on Saturday. The Tar Heels hope their quick offensive pace helps to neutralize the Seminoles up front.
4. Ryan Switzer chases history against Florida State's not-so-good punt coverage team.
If there's an area where the Tar Heels have a clear advantage entering Saturday, it just might be this: they have Ryan Switzer, one of the best punt returners in the country (and, based on the numbers, one of the best in college football history). And Florida State hasn't excelled in punt coverage.
The Seminoles have, in fact, been bad there. Now, it's a limited sample size. Florida State has only had to defend five punt returns. But on those five returns, they've allowed one touchdown and an average of 27.8 yards per return. Only one team, Utah State, is allowing more yards per return than Florida State.
Small sample size or not, punt coverage has to be a concern for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. And that concern has to be magnified with Switzer coming to Tallahassee.
Switzer, by the way, had another touchdown return nullified by a penalty last week. That's four for him. He remains one touchdown return away from tying the NCAA career record.
5. How the Tar Heels mask the overall disparity in talent.
What sort of tricks does coach Larry Fedora and his staff have up their sleeves? Expect to see some on Saturday. UNC has to do something to try to even the playing field, because Florida State has better players at just about every position.
A quick analysis of the composite recruiting rankings at 247Sports.com illustrates the disparity in raw talent between these teams. The average star ranking for UNC's 22 starters on offense and defense: 2.73, according to 247. The average star ranking for UNC's 22 backups: 2.86.
For the Seminoles, those averages are 3.86 for their starters, and 3.36 for their reserves. Which means, if you've been paying attention, that Florida State's reserves are “better” than UNC's starters.
Obviously, it's not as simple as that. UNC's starters are more experienced and seasoned than Florida State's reserves. And a guy like UNC receiver Mack Hollins, who wasn't really recruited out of high school before becoming an All-ACC player in college, affects that basic analysis.
Overall it's true, though: Florida State has far more talent. These aren't the Seminoles that UNC defeated in Tallahassee in 2010. No, these Seminoles are much better than those – and so the simplest question of all is whether UNC can keep up and, if so, how. I liked what Ryan Switzer said about this earlier this week.
I used part of it in a story but here it is again:
“I know a lot of guys in my class who were five-stars, four-stars, ranked ahead of me and haven't panned out. So recruiting is important but the stars and all that – it's about getting the guys that you need for your system, no matter what they're ranked. If they can play ball, they can play ball.
“Obviously, they're talented year in and year out with everyone, they can get anybody they want in the country. So that's not an issue for them. But I feel like I'm as talented as anybody in the country. I feel like guys that we have are just as talented. And Saturday's not going to be about talent. It's going to be about who executes the most and who can handle adversity the best.”
See you at Doak Campbell Stadium.