For the past month or so, it was accurate to say that North Carolina’s schedule wasn’t about to become any easier. That was true after a Sept. 17 victory against James Madison, with Pittsburgh looming the next week.
It was true after the victory against Pitt, with a road game at Florida State the next week. It was true after the victory at Florida State, with a home game against Virginia Tech the next week. It was true after the defeat against Virginia Tech, with a road game at Miami the next week.
But now comes relief, in a sense. Now it’s accurate to say, at last, that the Tar Heels’ schedule is about to get easier, starting with a game on Saturday at Virginia, where UNC hasn’t lost since 2008. Entering the second half of its ACC schedule, the Tar Heels are in an enviable position.
They made it through their four most difficult ACC games with a 3-1 record. Their next three games are against what appear to be the three weakest teams in the Coastal Division. The regular-season finale, against N.C. State, looks like UNC’s most formidable remaining regular-season challenge.
How much easier are UNC’s remaining four ACC games (that’d be at Virginia, against Georgia Tech, at Duke, against N.C. State) compared to their first four? Let’s look at some numbers.
First, conference record. UNC’s first four ACC opponents – Pitt, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami – are a combined 7-6 in the ACC. Not a tremendous record, but much better than 3-8, which is the combined conference record of UNC’s four remaining conference opponents.
What about offensive rankings?
The Tar Heels’ first four ACC opponents are averaging 6.14 yards per play, which would rank about 43rd nationally if the number represented a single team. The Tar Heels’ remaining four ACC opponents are averaging 5.58 yards per play, which would rank about 73rd nationally.
UNC, third in the ACC in yards per play, has already played against the teams that are second (Miami) and fourth (Florida State) in the league in that category. The best remaining offense UNC will face, on a per-play basis? It’s N.C. State, which ranks sixth in the ACC in yards per play (5.93).
The Tar Heels other three remaining opponents are eighth (Georgia Tech), ninth (Virginia) and 12th (Duke) in the ACC in yards per play. That doesn’t bode well for those three teams, given UNC’s proclivity for scoring points, and scoring them in a hurry.
Defending the run, though, remains a concern for the Tar Heels. Even after their strongest, most complete defensive performance of the season on Saturday at Miami, UNC is 106th nationally in run defense, and it hasn’t allowed fewer than 139 rushing yards per game.
That’s the not-so good news for UNC. The good news?
The Tar Heels have already played against three of the top five rushing offenses – on a per-play basis – in the ACC. Those teams: Miami, Pitt and Florida State. On average, UNC’s first four ACC opponents are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The remaining four: 4.3 yards per carry.
The Tar Heels’ remaining conference opponents appear less likely to exploit UNC’s greatest defensive weakness. Speaking of defense, the road ahead for UNC appears less daunting than the one it has traveled. Though it’s close.
Among ACC teams on UNC’s schedule, Miami and Virginia Tech rank first and second in yards per play allowed. Those games are in the past. N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Duke, though, are next in line, and they rank between sixth and eighth in the ACC in yards per play allowed.
Virginia, UNC’s opponent this week, allows 6.01 yards per play, which ranks 12th in the ACC. The Cavaliers appear to match up especially poorly against UNC, given Virginia’s inability to run well and its consistent defensive problems.
Which is why the schedule finally becomes easier for UNC. Starting now.
Before the season began, UNC’s past four games clearly appeared to be the season-defining stretch. A 2-2 record during those games might have been considered a success, given the degree of difficulty. The Tar Heels went one better, though, and won three out of four.
The one loss, against Virginia Tech, was significant. Because of that loss, the Tar Heels don’t control their own destiny in the Coastal Division race. They could by the end of Thursday night, however, should Miami beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
The rest of the way won’t be easy for UNC, necessarily. And no player or coach would say that it will be easier. It sure looks that way, though, with the most difficult games on UNC’s schedule already in the past.
UNC at Virginia
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.