CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Neither Virginia Tech nor North Carolina can afford many more losses in a cloudy Atlantic Coast Conference divisional race.
The Hokies (3-2, 0-1) visit the Tar Heels (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday in a matchup of Coastal Division teams trying to avoid an early second conference loss.
"I think it's perfectly clear that it's a conference game, and if you want to be in the battle for this division, it's a critical game," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "That's the deal."
There is no clear favorite in a wide-open Coastal that has no ranked teams and only one unbeaten — surprising Georgia Tech (4-0), which beat the Hokies two weeks ago.
But it's clear that having two ACC losses by the first weekend in October will make it considerably tougher to win the division and earn a trip to the league championship game.
With his team riding a two-game losing streak — and giving up 70 and 50 points in those defeats — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora is asking his team to look within.
"We have to get ourselves right right now, and really, it's not about who we play," Fedora said. "It's still about our room and getting ourselves right. We go out, and we play hard, and we take care of our job, then we've got a chance.
"If we continue to make the mistakes that we're making mentally, then it'll be hard," he added. "We've got to get those things cut out."
The Tar Heels rank 126th of 128 Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, giving up 44 points per game, and they're 127th through the air, allowing an average of 353 yards. They've given up 11 passes of 30 or more yards, including five that covered at least 50 yards.
That could work out well for Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer, who leads the conference with 118 completions.
"We don't have a defense called or defensive schemes where we turn a guy loose," Fedora said. "It may look like it, but we don't have that."
Some things to know about Virginia Tech's visit to Chapel Hill:
HOKIES' RUSHERS: Virginia Tech's depth in the backfield is about to be tested now that Shai McKenzie is out for the season with a torn right knee ligament. Beamer expects backup RB Trey Edmunds to earn more carries in McKenzie's absence. Starter Marshawn Williams rushed for 119 yards, Edmunds added 22 on three carries and the Hokies ran for 308 yards in last week's win over Western Michigan. J.C. Coleman, Joel Caleb and fullback Sam Rogers also could see increased carries.
TURNOVER TIME: It's probably safe to expect North Carolina to intercept at least one pass. The Tar Heels have picked off seven passes and have an interception in every game. And no ACC quarterback has thrown more interceptions than Brewer, who has 10.
TEAM GAME: Fedora hopes his offense and special teams can help pick up a defense that has struggled all season. That could mean asking an offense that leads the ACC with a 40.8-point scoring average to do even more. "Very seldom are there all three phases hitting on all cylinders and playing very well," he said. "Being on a team, you have to understand when one side's down, you have to pick them up."
AT HOME IN NC: The Hokies have made the state of North Carolina their second home and that run predates their entrance into the ACC a decade ago. Virginia Tech is 18-3 in games played in the state since 2000. Its only regular-season ACC loss came in its last visit to Chapel Hill in 2012.
UH-OH, 0-AND-2: A loss will give Virginia Tech its first 0-2 start to ACC play since joining the league in 2004. For North Carolina, that type of start would be familiar, if unwelcome: The Tar Heels have opened with two league losses four times since 2006 — including an 0-3 start to the league schedule in 2013.
Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap