If the college football regular season is a three-act drama spread through September, October and November, then the final act is here. How will it end for North Carolina?
The Tar Heels begin the final third of their season on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, against Georgia Tech. There are remaining games against Duke, The Citadel and then the regular-season finale against N.C. State on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The most difficult part of UNC’s schedule is in the past – that four-game stretch against Pittsburgh, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami. The Tar Heels navigated those games with a 3-1 record but the loss, against the Hokies, was an especially damaging one given it came against a Coastal Division opponent.
And so now UNC needs help. Will it receive it? That’s among the questions facing the Tar Heels entering the final month of the season. Some others:
1. Will UNC end an odd trend against Georgia Tech this weekend?
You’d think that an extra week to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ tricky option offense would be a good thing. And you’d think that the extra time to prepare would be such a benefit that it’d show up in a tangible way in the won-loss record.
You’d be wrong, though – at least for UNC the past four years. The Tar Heels are 2-2 in the past four seasons against Georgia Tech. The two victories came the past two seasons, when UNC had a normal week to prepare for the Yellow Jackets.
The two defeats came in 2013 and 2012, when the Tar Heels had their off week before playing against Georgia Tech. UNC was off last weekend and altered its practice schedule as a result. And so a victory on Saturday would end a weird trend of losing against Georgia Tech with more prep time and winning with less.
2. Can the Tar Heels continue their upward defensive trajectory?
During UNC’s first five games, it allowed an average of 6.06 yards per play. Extrapolate that over the season to this point, and UNC would rank 96th nationally in that category. During UNC’s past three games, it has allowed an average of 3.74 yards per play. Spread over the season to this point, that would lead the nation.
Now, a couple of notes: The Tar Heels’ schedule was considerably more difficult in the first half of the season. And one of those those past three games, against Virginia Tech, was basically played in a tropical storm. So take that into account.
Nonetheless, UNC’s defense is clearly better than it was, especially up front. There are a few reasons for the improvement: The defensive line is a lot better. Players who weren’t quite ready to play their roles two months ago are ready now. And UNC has built some defensive confidence.
UNC’s greatest remaining defensive challenge probably should come on Saturday against Georgia Tech, which is ranked 23rd nationally in yards per play. Duke (97th) and N.C. State (68th) are in the bottom half nationally in that category.
3. Will UNC receive the help it needs in the Coastal?
Ask UNC coach Larry Fedora anything about the division race, and he’ll say what any coach would say: He and his players can only control what they can control. And that’s the right answer. For the Tar Heels to be a factor in the division race, they likely need to win out.
But for them to win the division, they need Virginia Tech to lose a conference game. That doesn’t seem especially likely now, after the Hokies’ victory last Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Virginia Tech won games the past two weeks (against Miami, before Pitt) in which losses seemed possible.
At least more possible than defeat appears now. The Hokies’ remaining ACC schedule: at Duke and home against Georgia Tech and Virginia. Virginia Tech shouldn’t lose any of those games. Then again, it shouldn’t have lost at Syracuse, either – and Virginia shouldn’t have nearly beaten Louisville on Saturday.
So strange things can happen. And now UNC is in need of something strange to win the Coastal.