There’s no question North Carolina was fully aware of its investment Thursday night when Pittsburgh hosted Virginia Tech and watching closely. None of this “We’re only worried about ourselves” nonsense. Ryan Switzer’s tweet that afternoon left no doubt about that.
“We’re all @Pitt_FB fans tonight,” the UNC wide receiver wrote, a rare moment of Coastal Cohesion that highlighted just how much was on the line for the Tar Heels in a game in which they were not participating, played amid a week when they’re not even playing.
Alas, Switzer’s good wishes were to no avail. The Tar Heels (presumably) watched as their best opening back into the Coastal Division race slammed shut when Virginia Tech won, 39-36, leaving the Hokies in command and the Tar Heels in search of a miracle.
Both North Carolina and Virginia Tech are 4-1, but the Hokies hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, and their remaining schedules do not appear to favor the Tar Heels.
To win the Coastal, North Carolina will have to win out against Georgia Tech, Duke and N.C. State – not a particularly fearsome schedule in the abstract, albeit with the two rivalry games, and The Citadel in there as well – while hoping Virginia Tech loses at least once in its final stretch of Duke, Georgia Tech and 2-5 Virginia, the last two both at home. (Notre Dame is the Hokies’ fourth opponent). Again, not particularly intimidating, even if Virginia Tech’s ACC loss was an utterly baffling one, at Syracuse.
While a Pittsburgh win Thursday would have ceded control of the division back to North Carolina, the Tar Heels now have to remain perfect and hope for help elsewhere.
That rain-soaked home loss to the Hokies back on Oct. 8 will almost certainly come back to haunt the Heels, a surprisingly passive performance on North Carolina’s part that was not only excruciatingly painful at the time but has done lasting damage.
So where does this leave the Tar Heels, off this weekend, their Coastal Division chances slashed without so much as playing a down?
For one thing, even if they’re not in control, they’re not out of it. Virginia Tech did lose to Syracuse. Anything is possible. The goal of returning to the ACC title game – if not to Charlotte, thanks to HB2 – remains alive, if unlikely.
For another, with Duke and N.C. State still to come, there’s no shortage of motivation. The Tar Heels have won two in a row over the Blue Devils and three of four against the Wolfpack. Those are important rivalry records to defend.
The Tar Heels can – and perhaps even should – still finish 10-2 for a second straight double-digit win season, and a two-year record of 21 wins would be North Carolina’s most since 1996-97. A bowl win would give the Tar Heels a new school record. That’s something to play for, Coastal Division title or not.
Just as the opening loss to Georgia – last seen falling to 4-3 with a home loss to Vanderbilt, albeit still a better season than South Carolina produced a year ago after its upset of North Carolina – put an end to any hopes of national relevance, the loss to Virginia Tech put a damper on the Tar Heels’ hope of repeating in the Coastal Division. A potential second chance loomed Thursday, but came to naught.
Still, even if North Carolina’s remaining routes to Orlando may be few, the Tar Heels still have the chance to make school history, not to mention set a tone of continued excellence that will have an impact beyond this season, division champions or not.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock