Oakes’ Outlook: Bowls, Roles and Noles

Motown

And so the Tar Heels’ disappointing 2014 campaign will come to a close in Motown. It’s a fitting end (a dreary and cold one in the Midwest at that) for Carolina in a season that began with its head coach, Larry Fedora, proclaiming “it’s time.” Time for what, exactly, I’m not sure, but it certainly wasn’t a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl to face the equally mediocre 7-5 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Grab your tickets, folks! Get ‘em while they’re hot. I hear you can grab a pair of upper deck tickets for $75 each. After all, who doesn’t want to spend Christmas in Detroit?

The only one who might be excited about UNC’s bowl destination is Eric Ebron. The ex-Tar Heel turned Detroit Lion won’t have to travel far to watch his former teammates play. Enjoy, Ebron. I’m sitting this one out.

Photo courtesy of longshotblues.com

Photo courtesy of longshotblues.com

 

Platoons

Strap yourselves in, Carolina fans. I’m setting the over/under for the number of times we hear the word “platoon” Saturday at 50. Place your bets!

If you haven’t heard, the Tar Heels head to Rupp Arena Saturday for a meeting with the No. 1 team in the land – the Kentucky Wildcats. I’m still waiting to hear back from John Calipari’s folks for an interview…then I can ask him which side he’d like on that over/under. He’s a betting man, right?

The real question in this game is whether the blue platoon or the white platoon gets more playing time. “What did you think about that platoon shift there? I don’t know, Calipari may have taken the blue platoon out a little too soon – they’re a more offensively-gifted platoon.” Just a taste.

But let’s face it: the result isn’t really in doubt. The margin of victory? Sure. UK is really good.

Just remember, we won’t be watching a war movie this weekend. This will be college basketball. It will be easy to confuse the two. You’ll be all “platooned” out when the final buzzer sounds around 2 p.m. Saturday.

FREE ADVICE: Get your earplugs ready.

Photo courtesy of fashiontimes.com

Photo courtesy of fashiontimes.com

Jimbo’s Genius

Has there ever been a more dominant team less appreciated (or, ummm….more disrespected) than Florida State?

29 straight victories. Defending national champions. Three-time defending ACC champions. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Tradition. Pageantry. Legends.

You can think whatever you’d like about Jameis Winston’s childishly foolish behavior off the field, but I choose to separate the product on the field from the transgressions off it.

And the product I’ve witnessed on the field since November 24th, 2012 (the last time they came out on the wrong end of a scoreboard) has been nothing short of spectacular.

And yet, as the Seminoles continued to rack up the victories this season, they began to slide down the College Football Playoff rankings. In effect, FSU was penalized for doing what? Winning. That’s downright laughable.

Dear committee members, I don’t envy your job. It’s a tough one, no doubt. But you’re missing the forest for the trees.

Photo courtesy of atlantablackstar.com

Photo courtesy of atlantablackstar.com

The goal of a game is to win. Score more than your opponent. Who’s done that better than FSU? Nobody.

Flash only takes you so far. Substance prevails. FSU has plenty of that. But this year, at least, FSU isn’t sexy. Americans like sexy.

Perhaps that’s why each week, without fail, prognosticators, pundits and so-called experts pick the Noles to lose. This will be the week, they say. The week they won’t find a way to escape.

Yes, some day, maybe very soon, it will all be over. The Seminoles will lose. Most people will be happy.

But until then, I choose to give credit where credit is due. I’ll embrace the gritty determination, the steely composure under pressure and the ability to flip the switch. I admire it all. Why hate? Appreciate!

This year’s FSU team undoubtedly has more cracks in the armor than last year’s dominant display of perfection – in every phase of the game. The defense has holes. Jameis is more errant with the football. But in a way, to me, that makes the 2014 Noles even more impressive.

They’ve persevered. They overcame off-the-field issues. They survived the media onslaught. They’ve taken everybody’s best shot each and every week. They’ve been hated, and they’ve handled that too.

Photo courtesy of ngngsports.com

Photo courtesy of ngngsports.com

Sometimes you forget that these are 18, 19 and 20-year-old kids.

It’s far easier to get to the top than to stay there. Everybody wants to knock you off the pedestal, especially if you’re Jameis Winston – the guy everybody loves to hate. So what’s the magic formula to the Seminoles’ ability to stave off all challengers? There are lots of ingredients.

But the man stirring that potent concoction is Jimbo Fisher.

I still remember sitting a few feet away from the FSU head coach back in July at the ACC preseason media event in Greensboro.

There was something in the glint of his eyes and the infectious conviction in his words that made me a believer. Right then and there. Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

He let me take a peek behind the curtain. He talked for over 20 minutes on this thing called the “attitude of domination.” He discussed how in order to be special, you have to do something different that others aren’t willing to do. The throngs of national media members listened to the man preach.

Some coaches are X’s and O’s guys. And yes, Jimbo’s no slouch in that department. But I’m convinced that what sets him apart is not his football expertise.

No, Jimbo’s a philosopher. Behind those dadgum-its and goofy smiles, there lies a resolute belief system for success. I see how he gets his Noles to buy in.

We’ve grown so accustomed to Jimbo being asked the same questions by the TV sideline reporters after each and every thrilling come-from-behind victory this season. One of those questions is always, “How do you guys continue to come up with these fourth quarter comeback wins?”

Jimbo’s regular response? “It’s who we are.”

That resonates with me. And more importantly, it’s resonated in the hearts and minds of his players.

Through it all, the Seminoles have continued to live up to the University’s motto – UNCONQUERED. 29 and counting…

But yet again, everybody and their mother will be picking Florida State to lose when it takes the field in Pasadena against the mighty juggernaut that is Oregon in the national semifinals.

That’s just fine with Jimbo and the Noles. In fact, they like it that way.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

Posted in FSU Football, NCAA, NCAA Athletics, NCAA basketball, NCAA Football, Tar Heel bball, Tar Heel fball, UK Basketball, UNC Basketball, UNC Football | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Breakin’ It Down: NC State

The North Carolina Tar Heels look to back up their impressive 45-20 win at Duke with another rivalry win to close out the regular season. The 6-5 Tar Heels will welcome the N.C. State Wolfpack, also sporting a 6-5 record, to Chapel Hill Saturday afternoon for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff in the 104th meeting of the series.

Both squads will like their chances heading into the contest. UNC has won four of its last five, while N.C. State is coming off a resounding 42-13 victory over Wake Forest and has enjoyed two weeks of preparation for their most hated adversary.

The Tar Heels have won the past two meetings in the rivalry, but before that, it was the Wolfpack that held the upper hand with five straight wins. Saturday’s collision promises to be full of emotion and intensity, but which team will best channel that energy into positive production?

Offense

The Tar Heels are formidable on this side of the ball, ranking second in the ACC in scoring offense, averaging 36.7 points per game. Carolina has accumulated 500 or more yards in four of the last six games, including a season-high 591 yards against Duke.

Junior signal caller Marquise Williams is not only the ACC Offensive Back of the Week for the fourth time this season, but also a candidate for ACC Player of the Year. Williams is a lethal dual threat QB at his most dangerous when on the scramble. N.C. State’s defenders will need to play disciplined and be careful to not over pursue this week, or they run the risk of looking silly. And with Mack Hollins sprinting down the sidelines, Ryan Switzer darting into narrow lanes over the middle, Quinshad Davis (only needs one more touchdown reception to tie Hakeem Nicks’ school record at 21) looming large as a sure-handed target and T.J. Logan running with rediscovered authority, Williams has plenty of offensive sidekicks at his disposal.

The Wolfpack offer a well-balanced offense conducted by Florida transfer WB Jacoby Brissett. Brissett, much like Williams, is capable of hurting a defense with his arm and his legs. Brissett places third in the conference in the total offense category, trailing only FSU’s Jameis Winston and UNC’s Marquise Williams. Running back Shadrach Thornton, who leads a Wolfpack rushing offense ranked fourth in the ACC, can run downhill when he gets going and will relish his chances against a suspect UNC rush defense.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

The Tar Heels rank at or near the bottom of every major statistical category in the ACC. But they’ve shown some life in recent times – most notably with flashes against Pitt that were followed up by a complete performance at Duke. With Des Lawrence and Brian Walker playing better in the secondary, the Tar Heels haven’t been giving up as many explosive plays of late. Can it continue against the Wolfpack? There are still holes to be found by a high-performing offense no doubt, but UNC has shown the ability to force timely turnovers and come up with surprising stops as well.

N.C. State has been up and down all season on defense. You never know what you’re going to get as the Wolfpack seem equally as likely to struggle and be torched for 50 points as put the pieces all together and hold opponents down. Led by Art Norman, N.C. State likes to get after the quarterback and apply a ton of pressure when they can, but the Wolfpack have also struggled to stop the run, giving up 188.8 yards per contest. A rejuvenated T.J. Logan may be licking his lips.

EDGE: PUSH

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams are fairly sound in the special teams department. In fact, UNC tops the conference in kickoff coverage. But the question mark at the place-kicking position still leaves a rough scar on the Tar Heels. With no confidence in either Thomas Moore or Nick Weiler to make anything over 30 yards, UNC head coach Larry Fedora should be going for it on fourth down quite a bit on Saturday. The Wolfpcack, meanwhile, have a bit more stability at that position thanks to Niklas Slade. In the intangibles, you know both teams will be fired up and prepared for battle. But the friendly confines of Kenan Stadium, where UNC has lost only once this season, should provide an extra boost for the Tar Heels on Senior Day.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

There should be plenty of fireworks in this regular season finale. But N.C. State would do well to establish the run game early, limit Carolina’s cracks at the ball and keep the crowd out of it with some initial offensive success. Playing from behind against the explosive Marquise Williams and company is not advised for the Wolfpack. On the other hand, the Tar Heels will make life much easier on themselves if they jump out to an early lead and apply pressure on Brissett and the N.C. State offense.

In the end, I think the UNC defense will force a turnover or two and produce a few more stops than the N.C. State defense. And that’s not because I like the Tar Heel defenders more than the Wolfpack defenders, it’s because I think the UNC offense is more equipped to take advantage.

UNC 41, NCSU 31

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3IMG_2641.JPGSportnation.com

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Breakin’ It Down: Duke

The Battle for the Bell showcases one of the most bitter rivalries in college athletics before a nationally-televised audience in a primetime ESPN broadcast. Wait. This one’s not on the hardwood and doesn’t involve Coach K or Roy Williams? No, sir. This game will be played on the gridiron at Wallace Wade Stadium and features David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora stalking the sidelines. For the first time, the two football programs will write another chapter in the Tobacco Road Rivalry on a Thursday night, in a meaningful ACC Coastal division showdown.

The Tar Heels are coming off a thrilling 40-35 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers, while the Blue Devils suffered a disappointing 17-16 loss at the hands of the Hokies of Virginia Tech.

Thursday’s game will mark the 101st meeting between the two schools, with Carolina holding a 58-38-4 advantage in the head-to-head. Just like last year, the Tar Heels will be looking to spoil the Blue Devils’ hopes at a berth in the ACC Championship game opposite FSU’s Seminoles.

Offense

The Tar Heels rediscovered the offensive magic last week inside Kenan Stadium. After falling behind early, junior signal caller Marquise Williams directed the offense with impressive tenacity and got things clicking fast and furious. What’s more, injury-plagued receiver Quinshad Davis reemerged, snagging a few key passes to keep UNC drives alive. But probably the most positive development for offensive coordinator Seth Littrell was the hard running by TJ Logan. UNC has lacked much of a ground game all season long and would do well to run the ball effectively Thursday night against Duke.

As for the Blue Devils, their offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this year. But that’s not for lack of weaponry. Senior receiver Jamison Crowder has a knack for getting open and then dashing down the field for explosive plays. But can much-improved quarterback Anthony Boone avoid the critical mistakes and take care of the football in the bright lights of a national TV battle? His team ranks near the bottom of the conference pack in passing efficiency. But he has a trump card up his sleeve. Boone’s got the help of another solid offensive line that is giving up the fewest sacks of any team in the ACC.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

UNC is not good in this department. Not good at all. It’s like a broken record this year. But what do you want me to say? The Tar Heels rank in the 100’s in the nation in nearly all defensive statistical categories. Let’s face it. In a given game, you can usually count on one hand the times a UNC player disrupts in the opposing quarterback in the backfield. Ouch. But, I will say this much – the unit, with as rough as it’s been at times, is opportunistic. On more than one occasion, the Tar Heels have come up big with timely turnovers and big stands deep in its own territory. They’ll definitely need a turnover or two to give themselves a chance at the upset in Durham.

Duke isn’t flashy on this side of the football, but in typical Blue Devil fashion, they get the job done. They’ve been especially vulnerable against the run this year, ranking tenth in the conference. But still, despite giving up plenty of yards between the 20-yard lines, Duke has been stingy inside the red zone. This ‘bend, don’t break’ unit held both Miami and Georgia Tech to under 30 points – no small feat. Coach Cutcliffe has as disciplined a defense as you’ll see. They don’t miss assignments and wrap up tackles with uncommon efficiency for today’s college football world. If you’re going to light up the scoreboard against Duke, you better just blow by them.

EDGE: Duke

Special Teams/Intangibles

UNC has had more issues in this department in 2014 than in years past under Coach Fedora. But the Carolina skipper insists the ‘game-changing play’ is going to happen. If he’s right, T.J. Logan and Switzer are the prime suspects to deliver the goods. Tommy Hibbard is a very reliable punter for the Tar Heels, capable of flipping the field position with one sturdy boot.
But the biggest question mark comes in the field goal kicking game. Can the Tar Heels find any consistency from Nick Weiler or Thomas Moore? It remains to be seen. If this game is close, yikes!

Duke is fundamentally sound in every aspect of its special teams play, ranking in the top few spots in the ACC in punting, kickoff returns and punt return average. But Duke field goal kicker Ross Martin, normally reliable, missed a crucial attempt last weekend. Kicking can often be a fickle mental game. How will he respond to adversity for this rivalry matchup? It also must be said, the Blue Devils have the advantage of a home field. If the ‘Wally’ is ever going to be rocking, it is going to be Thursday night.

EDGE: Duke

Prediction

This game is hard to prognosticate. I think the most interesting matchup will come down to the Duke rush defense, which has struggled, against UNC’s TJ Logan. If the Tar Heels can pick up yards on the ground consistently, this becomes a new contest. It will free Williams all the more to attack downfield and hit his favorite playmakers like talented newcomer Mack Hollins, sophomore sparkplug Ryan Switzer and the reliable Davis.

I’ve always said the past couple seasons that I truly believe UNC’s best stuff is better than Duke’s best stuff. I stand by that statement. But the thing is, you know what you’re going to get with the Blue Devils (well, don’t worry about last week). With the Tar Heels, you just never know. They like to shoot themselves in the foot, and that’s what Duke absolutely thrives on, as Coach Fedora said earlier this week.

My best guess? I think UNC will come out firing, get another big performance from Williams, play from ahead, and ultimately, slow down Duke’s attack enough to emerge victorious and bring the Victory Bell to Chapel Hill.

UNC 34, Duke 30

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2620-1.JPG Photo courtesy of Dallas News

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Fighting Fedora, Williams Eyeing Strong Football Finish

The 5-5 UNC football team has seen its fair share of adversity in a season that once again, hasn’t met expectations.

But through it all, the Tar Heels have continued to display a fighting spirit that filters down from two of their leaders – head coach Larry Fedora and signal caller Marquise Williams.

Coach Fedora says he has the utmost confidence in his players to keep battling, even in the crucible of a fourth quarter deficit.

“Our guys don’t panic. They really don’t. After the Georgia Tech game, it was the same situation. You looked at them and nobody was in a bog hurry or worried. They just played,” Coach Fedora says.

The unflappable Tar Heels have trailed in almost every game this season and have surrendered an ACC worst number of points to opposing teams, but somehow, some way, Carolina remains at a respectable 5-5 mark on the season.

Heart isn’t always easy to measure in an athlete, but Coach Fedora and for that matter, any other UNC football observer must wonder if junior quarterback Marquise Williams has an extra heart beating inside his chest somewhere.

Williams, the ACC Offensive Back of the Week yet again, has led the Tar Heels to final drive victories now in two huge home contests.

Thrilling victories against 9-2 Georgia Tech and 4-6 Pittsburgh have kept UNC’s bowl hopes alive, and the MVP of both of those games was no doubt Williams.

Williams says he’ll do anything, including sacrificing his body against big, bruising linebackers, in order to secure victory for his teammates.

“Me one-on-one with the linebacker – I like my chances. I felt confident. I feel like no one man is going to bring me down. That’s how I think when I run the football. I wanted to put the team on my back and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m in this for ya’ll,’” Williams says.

Another example of perseverance for the Tar Heels comes in the form of wide receiver Quinshad Davis. Davis has battled injuries all season, but came up with a few key grabs in the Pitt game last weekend.

Coach Fedora says he never has to worry about Davis on Saturdays.

“For Quinshad [Davis], anytime you go to him, he’s going to make a play. He’s fighting, scratching and clawing just trying to get in that end zone. He’s always going to come through,” Coach Fedora says.

Maybe Coach Fedora could learn a thing or two from Williams on how to stay calm on the sidelines? The Carolina skipper says his quarterback is always under control these days.

“I get a lot more frustrated than he does. He stays pretty calm and collected. He’s busy encouraging guys, talking things through and talking to the O-line and the receivers. You don’t see a whole lot of frustration on his part,” Coach Fedora says.

The finish line is in sight now. With two rivalry games against Duke this Thursday night at Wallace Wade Stadium and a home tilt against the Wolfpack the following Saturday, UNC will surely be hungry to put an exclamation point on 2014 and secure a spot in the postseason.

But Coach Fedora says the Tar Heels don’t care who their opponents are coming up and says the team isn’t talking bowl scenarios just yet.

“I’ll be honest; we haven’t even talked about a bowl game. I don’t have any doubt that our team is going to prepare and be ready to play on Thursday. I believe that and don’t worry about that. We plan on being in a bowl game, but I don’t know if it matters who we play,” Coach Fedora says.

The fighting, comeback Tar Heels will certainly need plenty of perseverance Thursday night when they head into enemy territory looking to bring the Victory Bell back to Chapel Hill.

You can follow me on Twitter @moakesIMG_1247.JPG

Photo courtesy of Elliott Rubin

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Breakin’ It Down: Miami

The North Carolina football team has scratched and clawed its way back to a .500 record overall and in the ACC. In the crowded Coastal division of the ACC, that’s good enough to have the Tar Heels back in the thick of it. Last week’s thrilling 28-27 win at Virginia gives UNC a ton of confidence, considering the offense sputtered for most of the second half.

But the going doesn’t get any easier. The Miami Hurricanes seem to be finding their form at just the right time. The Hurricanes completely dismantled the Virginia Tech Hokies 30-6 in their last contest. At 5-3 overall and 2-2 in conference play, Miami head coach Al Golden has his sights firmly set on his first ACC Championship game appearance.

Not much has separated these two schools on the gridiron. The Tar Heels narrowly lead the all-time series 9-8, and the two programs have battled to a 5-5 draw in their 10 games as ACC members since 2004. Last year, the Canes snuck past the Heels 27-23 in Chapel Hill.

Offense

Carolina’s offense isn’t always consistent, but it’s a big play machine. Overall, the Tar Heels recorded four touchdowns of 50-plus yards during their previous two games. The emergence of walk-on Mack Hollins, who was named ACC Receiver of the Week, has been rewarding as well. With a bevy of talented playmakers at junior quarterback Marquise Williams’ disposal, the Tar Heels are tough to stop. When they’re firing on all cylinders, UNC is one of the premier offenses in the nation.

As for Miami, everything is driven by star running back Duke Johnson. The junior has scored a touchdown in seven straight games and has accounted for 35 first downs in the past five outings. His motor never stops and now, he’s seeing the running lanes with more clarity. That’s scary news for the Tar Heel defenders! Even more encouraging for the Canes is the development of their freshman signal caller Brad Kaaya. He’s played with more poise and control in the past couple contests. If that continues, the sky’s the limit for the Miami attack.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

I feel like a broken record every week with the UNC defense. They’re improving, yes. But they’re still not very good. They give up way too many big plays in both the running and passing game. The Tar Heels have surrendered a shocking 512.8 yards per game, which places them sixth worst in the nation. But despite all this, the Tar Heels show flashes of life in the form of timely turnovers like last week’s game-changing interception by Nazair Jones.

It’s hard to figure out this Miami defense. Sometimes, like last week at Virginia Tech, they’re dominant, but other times, like at Nebraska earlier in the season, they struggle mightily. Linebacker Denzel Perryman stands out. He’s somebody the UNC coaching staff has to game plan for. Perryman has recorded 42 solo tackles already in 2014. The Hurricanes rank fourth in the ACC in total defense, but have been prone to giving up explosive plays, especially off teh ground. Which Miami defense will show up on Saturday? It’s anybody’s guess.

EDGE: Miami

Special Teams/Intangibles

The Tar Heels rank near the top of the conference in most special teams categories, but are still searching for some magic in the return game. Dangerous return men Ryan Switzer and TJ Logan have yet to take one the distance. Will this be the game?

The Hurricanes always have scary speed at the skill positions and have been fairly solid in the kicking game all season. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, their home crowds leave plenty to be desired. The Canes fans do not show up in great numbers and therefore, Sun Life Stadium is not a raucous atmosphere despite Miami’s improving form. The 12:30 kickoff won’t help with that home field advantage either.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

The betting line on this game sits at -17 in favor of Miami. I had to do a double-take when I saw that spread. Yes, UNC is an underdog, but not that kind of underdog. But, alas, I’m picking this one straight up.

I think this game will be entertaining, as they usually tend to be when these two Coastal rivals square off. With so much on the line, the team that makes the fewer mistakes and takes care of the football best will likely emerge the winner. In addition, red zone efficiency will be critical. UNC is second behind only FSU in that conference statistic.

So the pressure will be on Miami to match them. Kaaya will need to take advantage of every possession and not settle for field goals. If he’s able to avoid costly turnovers against an opportunistic Tar Heel defense and put the ball in the end zone early and often, the Canes are in good shape. Luckily for him, at home, the Hurricanes have thrived, scoring in bunches.

UNC’s Williams and Hollins will engineer plenty of explosive plays, but the hungry Hurricanes will be able to come up with a few more stops and find a way to escape with the crucial victory.

Miami 41, UNC 38

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2561-0.JPG

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Breakin’ It Down: Virginia

Last week, the 3-4 North Carolina football team earned its first ACC win of 2014 with a thrilling 48-43 victory over Georgia Tech. Despite a four-game losing streak, somehow, the Tar Heels still remain alive in the wide open Coastal division.

Virginia comes in with a 4-3 record and 2-1 mark in the ACC. The Cavaliers squandered a golden opportunity to seize control of the Coastal last weekend in Durham, falling to Duke 20-13. And with a brutal schedule ahead of them that includes games at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State, the Wahoos understand the significance of Saturday’s 12:30 matchup in the ‘South’s Oldest Rivalry’.

Two of the oldest and most prestigious public universities in the nation will face off for their 119th meeting. Carolina leads the all-time series with Virginia 60-54-4

Offense

The UNC offense is rolling. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, has been beautiful to watch the past couple weeks against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The last two weeks, Carolina has played in the highest scoring game in Notre Dame Stadium history and the most total offense yards in Kenan Stadium history.

Playing the best football of his career, Williams enters this week ranking 17th in total offense at 318 yards per game. What’s more, in a welcome development for head coach Larry Fedora and staff, the Tar Heels received valuable contributions from running back T.J. Logan against Georgia Tech. If the ground game can get going, it will make this already potent UNC attack all the more impossible to stop.

As for the Cavaliers, they rely heavily on senior running back Kevin Parks. Parks is one of the premier backs in the ACC and always runs hard. He’ll certainly be a handful for the Tar Heel defenders.

As for the quarterback position, in the past three games, UVA head coach Mike London has gone with Matt Johns. He’s been struggling with his accuracy and even more so, with his execution in the red zone. Last week, the Cavalier offense’s inability to get the ball in the end zone for touchdowns cost them big-time against the Blue Devils. We know the Wahoos should experience more success against a porous UNC secondary, but will UVA convert enough scoring opportunities into 6 points when the field shrinks on them?

EDGE: UNC

Defense

The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force key turnovers. But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring defense, averaging giving up north of 40 points each game. But thankfully for UNC, Virginia’s offense doesn’t have the kind of firepower they’ve been facing for most of 2014.

Virginia, on the other hand, finds its identity in its stingy defense. The Cavaliers are ninth in total defense when playing FBS competition, and few teams attack the quarterback better. The Wahoos have 22 sacks, which ranks 12th in the country. Against a young UNC offensive line, expect the Virginia defensive linemen to win plenty of one-on-one battles in the trenches. The key for the Cavaliers, though, will be whether they are able to force turnovers and set up a short field for the offense.

EDGE: UVA

Special Teams/Intangibles

The Tar Heels pride themselves in solid special teams. So far, their kickoff return coverage has been sublime, leading the ACC and placing 10th in the nation. Their field goal kicking, meanwhile, remains a question mark with new addition Nick Weiler’s longest field goal being under 25 yards. What’s more, Coach Fedora is still waiting on that game-changing play from his shifty sparkplug Ryan Switzer in the return game.

The Cavaliers are solid, but not spectacular in the third phase of the game. However, if the game comes down to a field goal, UVA has to like their chances more than UNC. Ian Frye hasn’t missed a field goal inside 40 yards the entire season, booting a perfect 10/10. The home crowd at Scott Stadium should provide a helpful boost to the Cavaliers, but it’s not an overly intimidating venue, especially given the stadiums the Tar Heels have visited this year.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

This game will come down to whether the UNC offense or the Virginia defense is better in comparison to their opposing counterparts. Is the Carolina offensive attack capable of running away and hiding from a lackluster UVA offense? Or is the Cavalier defense far superior to the Tar Heel defense and able to come up with more stops through four quarters? It’s an intriguing question.

My guess? The Cavalier defense is far superior. But their offense is also overmatched by a UNC offensive machine that is now humming like a top-of-the-line sports car. It’s a classic contrast in styles.

Personally, I prefer a team that is built around a defense, but in today’s world of college football, I’m going with the more prolific offense. The Tar Heels will be slowed down and Williams will be under a tremendous amount of pressure all afternoon, but UNC will do what they’ve done well all season long – finish off drives and convert in the red zone. And I don’t think an undeniably well-coached, but yet offensively challenged Virginia team will keep up.

UNC 35, UVA 24

You can follow me on Twitter @moakes3IMG_2557.JPG

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Breakin’ It Down: Georgia Tech

The 2-4 North Carolina football team is coming off its fourth straight loss, this time on the road at No. 5 Notre Dame by a 50-43 margin. But this defeat was far more palatable. The Tar Heels surprisingly held the lead heading into the fourth quarter in South Bend, playing with much more energy and aggression.

This week, the UNC players and head coach Larry Fedora have even drawn comparisons to the tough 27-23 loss to top-ten-ranked Miami last season that served as the turning point in the Tar Heels’ season.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, suffered its first loss of the season last week in a home loss to Coastal rival Duke. At 5-1, though, the Ramblin’ Wreck will still like their chances at getting to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game, having already beaten Virginia Tech and Miami.

Carolina and Georgia Tech will meet Saturday in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m. for the 50th time overall. The Yellow Jackets hold a 28-18-3 all-time series advantage, including wins in the 14 of the last 16 head-to-head matchups.

Offense

The UNC offense displayed how potent it can be last week at South Bend. Marquise Williams’ dual-threat ability, in particular, frustrated the vaunted Fighting Irish defense. When UNC is hot, they’re on fire. When they’re cold, however, they’re freezing. Again, it’s like a broken record, but it bares repeating. If the Tar Heels can figure out a way to establish more consistency in a largely nonexistent running game, they would really take some pressure away from Williams and keep opposing defenses more honest.

Trick plays continue to work wonders for the Tar Heels. In fact, five different UNC players have thrown a touchdown this season. You should expect more surprises up Coach Fedora’s sleeve against the Yellow Jackets. The young UNC offensive linemen have been thrown into the fire the last few weeks against some of the best defenses in the country – Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Facing a good, but not great GT this week will feel like a breath of fresh air. No GT defensive ends or defensive tackles weigh in over the 300-pound mark on the scales. With that in mind, Williams should have more time to get the ball out to his vast array of playmakers.

As for the Jackets, they’re extremely efficient. GT is the only FBS team ranked in the top ten in both 3rd down and 4th down conversions. The Jackets also lead the nation with a 58.9 percent 3rd down conversion rate. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. The triple option sets up short-yardage situations on the money downs. Head coach Paul Johnson isn’t afraid to roll the dice either. He hates to punt and loves to go for it on fourth down. The Jackets are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas. Thomas ranks second among FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards per game. In addition to Thomas, GT relies heavily on senior running back Zach Laskey. He has 105 carries for 523 yards and 3 touchdowns so far in 2014. In addition, Laskey has recorded only four negative carries in 322 career rushing attempts. As always, GT will be eager to pad the offensive stats, especially against a UNC defense that historically struggles mightily against them.

EDGE: PUSH

Defense

The Tar Heels are steadily improving week-to-week. I know the scoreboard hasn’t necessarily shown it, but greater defensive energy and more pressure being applied up front has been noticeable in recent weeks. Even more encouraging for the Tar Heels is their ability, so far, to force turnovers each and every game.

But missed tackling and a porous secondary can still double-team to give up disastrous big plays for the Tar Heels at inopportune times. Let’s be honest, UNC ranks dead last in scoring defense, averaging giving up an astonishing 43.3 points each game.This week, more than any other, gap assignments and discipline will be paramount for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s boys.

The Jackets, meanwhile, are always tough to figure out on defense. Why? Because of how well their offense handles the ball and chews up clock. The defensive front struggles to penetrate into opposing backfields, only managing seven sacks this season – that’s good enough for last in the ACC. But GT does have a talented secondary that doesn’t allow too many big plays and is opportunistic, snagging eight interceptions through six games. What’s more, they’re only giving up 25 points per contest this season, although I don’t think they’ve played anybody with the quick-strike ability of the Tar Heels.

EDGE: GT

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams rank at or near the top in a majority of special teams departments. Their punt and kickoff teams are very solid. UNC’s Coach Fedora, though, is still waiting for that game-changing play from his special teams unit. Will he get it this week? Paul Johnson, meanwhile, has a special teams weapon. GT junior defensive back Chris Milton is tied for second in the FBS with two blocked kicks already this season. Last year, he was the only player in the nation to block three punts. The Tar Heels will have home-field advantage working for them Saturday night. Night-time crowds at Kenan Stadium can definitely produce hostile atmospheres.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

This game will come down to the start. UNC has to take a page out of Duke’s book. Yes, arch-rival Duke. The key? Establish a lead early on and force the Yellow Jackets to try to play their triple option from behind. Last week, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times. It cost them big-time as they fell too far behind to make a rally against the Blue Devils. If Georgia Tech can avoid those mistakes against Carolina and keep their offense on schedule, they should eat up a ton of clock and have the upper-hand. What’s more, the young Tar Heel defense hasn’t experienced much success against any offense this season, let alone the ultra-frustrating triple option they’re about to face Saturday night.

However, there’s hope still for the Tar Heels. If they can get Marquise Williams and their explosive offense rolling early on and come up with a key turnover or two on defense, which they’ve shown they can do, UNC can jump out to a double-digit cushion and Georgia Tech may be forced to get out of its comfort zone. History and records both strongly favor Georgia Tech, I know. Call me crazy, but I’m picking the Tar Heels, with their backs up against the wall, to somehow find the right Kenan Stadium night magic to avoid the annual Yellow Jacket sting.

UNC 45, GT 41

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Photo courtesy of Shellmont.com

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