North Carolina has played but one conference game. But it was an important one – one at Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets entered the season as the favorite in the ACC’s Coastal Division, and entered the season, too, with an eight-game home winning streak against the Tar Heels.
That streak is no more after UNC’s 38-31 victory Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Also no more: the Yellow Jackets’ status as the division favorite. They’ve now lost three consecutive games, are 0-2 in the ACC and still have yet to play Clemson and Florida State.
So amid Georgia Tech’s descent, who is the favorite in the Coastal? There’s a good argument to be made that it’s UNC. You might have seen on Monday that ESPN.com’s Football Power Index (FPI) does indeed consider the Tar Heels the mathematical favorite to win the Coastal.
The FPI, which is “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season,” gives UNC a 51 percent chance of winning the division. Duke has the next-best chance, 22 percent, according to the FPI.
The nuts and bolts behind the FPI aren’t exactly clear – it’s designed to be a measure of “how many points above or below average a team is,” according to its description, and its projections are based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season. It projects UNC’s final regular-season record to be 9-3, which means it’d be 6-2 in the ACC. Sounds about right for a team that’s projected to win its division.
So the FPI is one thing that offers a favorable take on UNC’s chances. You don’t need to be a data-head, though, to understand why the Tar Heels just might be the ACC favorite. A quick look at the league standings and at UNC’s remaining schedule, and that of its division rivals, makes it pretty clear.
First, the standings. Georgia Tech, as we’ve established, is 0-2 in the ACC and Virginia Tech, another team that entered the season with hopes of competing for the Coastal, is 0-1. Miami and Virginia have yet to play conference games. At the top of the standings, Duke is 2-0 and UNC and Pitt are both 1-0.
Now, there are a lot of games to be played. It’s early yet. Way early. But take a look at some of the scheduling highlights for the four teams with what appears to be the best chance to win the division:
▪ Duke: Plays at Virginia Tech and at UNC, plays three of last four games on the road.
▪ UNC: Gets Duke at home, and Miami, but closes the season at Virginia Tech and at N.C. State.
▪ Pitt: Plays at Georgia Tech (this weekend) and Duke, gets UNC at home on a Thursday night. Four of final five games are at home.
▪ Miami: Tough schedule for the Hurricanes, who play the above three teams on the road – and also goes to Florida State this weekend.
The Tar Heels end the season with difficult road games at Virginia Tech and N.C. State. Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium always offers a challenging environment. The Wolfpack could be winless and Carter-Finley Stadium would still be loud and hostile for a game against UNC.
The Tar Heels, though, have an opportunity to build some momentum, and perhaps some separation if other teams falter. UNC’s next two games are at home against Wake Forest (on Oct. 17) and Virginia. UNC should win both of those and, if it does, it’d be 6-1. If it happens that way, it’d be the Tar Heels’ best start since 1997, when it won its first eight games before finishing 11-1.
The question is whether the Tar Heels can avoid losing a game(s) it should win. That has been an issue for them for a while now, including earlier this season against South Carolina.
UNC underperformed last season in several defeats. It lost when it shouldn’t have the season before that, and the season before that (remember the 28-27 loss at Wake Forest in 2012?).
For now, though, UNC appears to be the favorite in the Coastal. Not because of what will happen, necessarily, but because of what’s expected to happen. In a few weeks the Tar Heels should be 6-1 entering its difficult five-game stretch that ends the season.
You might remember that UNC coach Larry Fedora entered the 2014 season saying “it’s time.” He might have been a year early. After the victory at Georgia Tech, which came after UNC trailed 21-0 late in the second quarter, the Tar Heels have as good of a chance as any team, and a better chance than most, to emerge from the ACC’s unpredictable Coastal Division.