No. 22 North Carolina faces ACC test in Virginia
North Carolina is not yet in control of its future when it comes to a return appearance in the ACC Championship Game as Virginia Tech holds the tiebreaker over the Tar Heels if those two teams end up tied at the top of the Coastal Division standings at the end of the regular season.
But the No. 22 Tar Heels are sitting in a much better position heading into Saturday's game against Virginia at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., (3 p.m. ET, RSN) than they were a week ago when they were bound for Miami coming off the big loss to the Hokies.
The win over the Hurricanes put North Carolina (5-2, 3-1 ACC) alone in first place in the division when the Hokies lost at Syracuse to fall to 2-1 in league play.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, however, their 20-13 victory over the Hurricanes came with a price.
They lost wide receiver Mack Hollins to a broken collarbone and the senior will miss the rest of the season after having surgery. Hollins led North Carolina in touchdown catches with four among his 16 receptions. His 19.3 yards per catch average was tops among receivers with more than one catch.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they do have depth at the position. Wide receiver Ryan Switzer has 58 catches for 606 yards, Bug Howard 29 for 429 and Austin Proehl 24 for 302. Running backs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood have a combined 34 catches for 229 yards.
"We still got some guys that can stretch the field vertically," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. "That doesn't overly concern me.
"We'll miss Mack's ability to do it. That's probably the thing he does best, but we've got some guys who can get behind people."
The Tar Heels, who have won six straight over Virginia, have gone through what arguably is the toughest part of their schedule with their four remaining conference games against teams with a combined 3-8 league mark. In addition to Virginia's 1-1 conference record, Georgia Tech is 1-3 in league play, Duke 0-3 and North Carolina State 1-1. North Carolina also has a non-conference affair against The Citadel.
None of the conference games figures to be pushovers, though the Tar Heels likely will be favored in all four.
If they are able to run the table, they still need Virginia Tech to lose at least one more time to get to the ACC title game. North Carolina already has beaten Pittsburgh (5-2, 2-1).
Virginia (2-4, 1-1) could be an interesting matchup. The Cavaliers began the season by losing their first three games (Richmond, Oregon, Connecticut) but notched a win over Central Michigan before opening conference play by beating Duke 24-10. They lost a high-scoring 45-31 affair to Pittsburgh last week.
"I like my team," first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "I like how hard they try and how they've embraced the culture. And we're moving up the scale of the effort and intent to position mastery and execution.
"That's basically where our team is right now. So we're becoming better in terms of our position mastery and playing our spots. Execution is not holding yet long enough from beginning to end in all three phases to have the outcomes that we would like.
"But more and more plays are looking how we would like them to be."
Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, has passed for 421, 336, and 278 yards the last three games but has seven interceptions against 14 touchdown passes for the season.
The Cavaliers have a two-back approach to the rushing game with Taquan Mizzell rushing for a team-best 355 yards and Albert Reid 346.
Defensively, the Cavaliers had some success at times stopping the run, holding Central Michigan to 93 yards rushing and Duke to 106, but gave up 209 yards to Pittsburgh their last outing and 301 to Oregon early in the season.
"We're still missing more plays in open field than what I would like," Mendenhall said. "But we're starting to make more than what we had before. So a work in progress."
The series, which North Carolina leads 63-53-4, began in 1892 and is billed as the oldest rivalry in the South.