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The Confidential

The ACC Sports Blog

To Make or Break a Season- The Tar Heel Football Gauntlet

The North Carolina football team may have had last week off, but they certainly didn’t have any time to rest. After two underwhelming victories against motivated, but overmatched opponents, the Tar Heels had a lot of work to do. Despite being 2-0, the season was already heading in the wrong direction without significant changes in a number of different areas. Poor tackling and a stagnant running game were two of the biggest problems, but that’s only scratching the surface. This week it’s back to business, and things are about to heat up pretty quickly. Four games in four weeks, three of them away against ranked or probably should be ranked opponents (ECU), leaves little room for error.

Introduction

Teams in the Atlantic Division like to claim their superior strength of schedule, but they would be hard pressed to rival what North Carolina is facing the next four weeks. Up first? The East Carolina Pirates team that knocked off #17 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The same Hokies team that knocked off #8 Ohio State the week before IN Columbus. And that’s only the warm-up to a month long gauntlet that could leave the Tar Heels on the road to bowl eligibility, or another ‘maybe next year’ season. Let’s examine the next four games, how the Tar Heels match up against each opponent as of right now, and what the result might be. A lot could change in the next few weeks, but this first week sets the tone for the whole group.

2014 Overall FBS rankings are courtesy of ESPN.com. Individual team rankings are at the time of the game.

GAME 1- Saturday, September 20- AT East Carolina (Greenville, NC)

North Carolina Tar Heels

(2-0 vs. (Win) Liberty (2-1), (Win) San Diego State (1-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

59th, 249.0 avg.          67th, 169.5 avg.          21st, 43.5 avg.             86th, 28.0 avg.

East Carolina Pirates

(2-1 vs. (Win) NC Central (1-2), (Loss) #21 South Carolina (2-1), (Win) #17 Virginia Tech (2-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards             Points For                    Points Against

7th, 374.0 avg.            91st, 138.3 avg.           57th, 34.3 avg.             42nd, 20.3 avg.

Key Stat- Passing Yards. Unlike with some matchups, there is a clear discrepancy between the performance of the North Carolina and East Carolina football teams during the few three weeks of the season. Both can claim hold of two categories, but it’s the passing yards of the Pirates that the Tar Heels need to watch out for. San Diego State put up some big numbers in week 2 (341yards in the air, over 500 total) against North Carolina at home, and East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden and company proved that they’re more than worthy of their #7 passing ranking with their performance against the usually stingy Virginia Tech defense last week. Unless North Carolina found a way to solve their tackling problem, it’s hard to see them stopping the Pirates.

Intangibles- The North Carolina-East Carolina rivalry is an almost yearly affair, and it’s certainly one of the most heated in the State, partly due to the Pirates’ longstanding desire to join the ACC. As someone who was a graduate assistant in Greenville during Coach Ruffin McNeill’s first season, I can guarantee that the sold-out crowd this Saturday will be primarily purple and overwhelmingly hostile to the Tar Heels. Count on the crowd being a big factor in the confidence of both teams.

Strength of Schedule- East Carolina has never been shy about playing a difficult schedule. Since their decades long quest to join the ACC has yet (and probably never will) to come to fruition, they’ve had a longstanding policy of playing some of the best teams available in out of conference play. This has led them to establish an almost yearly rivalry with local Power 5 teams North Carolina and Virginia Tech, and occasional series with teams like South Carolina and West Virginia. Yet, despite the fact that the Pirates are undoubtedly more battle worn at this point in the season, you have to wonder if they fall in the same trap as their week 3 opponent, the Virginia Tech Hokies, after a big win.

Outcome- The Tar Heels underestimated the Pirates at home last year, losing 55-31. While East Carolina has the home field advantage and a seemingly stronger team, I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to North Carolina for taking their week off seriously and preparing well. It’s going to be a Tar Heel win, but in a high scoring affair.

GAME 2- Saturday, September 27- AT Clemson (Clemson, SC)

North Carolina Tar Heels

(2-0 vs. (Win) Liberty (2-1), (Win) San Diego State (1-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

59th, 249.0 avg.          67th, 169.5 avg.          21st, 43.5 avg.             86th, 28.0 avg.

Clemson Tigers

(1-1 vs. (Loss) #12 Georgia (1-1), (Win) South Carolina State (1-2))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

16th, 335.0 avg.          57th, 178.0 avg.          11th, 47.0 avg.             71st, 26.0 avg.

Key Stat- All of them. Clemson holds the edge in every single category, although not by much in the final three. It will be interesting to how this changes in week 4, as the Tigers take on the defending national champions, Florida State. Currently, the Seminoles are 49th overall in points against, with 21.5 per game, so the Clemson passing game will certainly be tested. Statistically speaking however, it’s hard to argue against Clemson being the better team no matter what happens this week.

Intangibles- Clemson’s Memorial Stadium is constantly ranked in the top, and loudest, places to play in college football. For the second weekend in a row, the Tar Heels go on the road in an extremely hostile environment. I think that the way they handle the fans in Clemson depends on their success in Greenville the week before. If they win against the Pirates, their confidence will help them rise above the noise. If they lose, they’ll get lost in the crowd and quickly.

Strength of Schedule- Clemson started out the season against a difficult Georgia Bulldogs team (in Athens) and did not do very well (losing 45-21). After beating up a local lower division team South Carolina State, they’re facing the #1 team in the nation, Florida State, in week 4. They’ll be prepared for North Carolina, but will they be tired? The Tar Heels will have played a lower level team (Liberty) and two strong mid-level teams (SDS, ECU) by that point, but they will have also had a much needed week-long break to retool their strategy. I’d have to think that Clemson’s schedule would come back to bite them in this case.

Outcome- Even though I’ll be at this game, so as a Tar Heel I’d like to think that we’ll win, I just don’t see it happening. Sure, Clemson will be tired, and probably 1-2 at that point, but the hardest part of their schedule will be behind them, except for in-state rival South Carolina, and they’ll be ready to push towards a high-level bowl after losing out on the division. North Carolina on the other hand, will be in the second game of an extremely difficult four game stretch, making victory an extremely daunting task.

GAME 3- Saturday, October 4- VS Virginia Tech (Chapel Hill, NC)

North Carolina Tar Heels

(2-0 vs. (Win) Liberty (2-1), (Win) San Diego State (1-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

59th, 249.0 avg.          67th, 169.5 avg.          21st, 43.5 avg.             86th, 28.0 avg.

Virginia Tech Hokies

(2-1 vs. (Win) William and Mary (2-1), (Win) #8 Ohio State (2-1), (Loss) East Carolina (2-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

56th, 254.3 avg.          85th, 146.0 avg.          71st, 30.0 avg.             35th, 19.3 avg.

Key Stat- Points Against. Once again the categories are split, but as always, defense is a strength for the Hokies. Despite their week 3 performance against ECU, Bud Foster’s defense proved that they’re capable of stopping prolific offensive teams against #8 Ohio State in week 2. If the Tar Heels had trouble scoring against San Diego State (31st, 19.0 avg.), they’ll find Virginia Tech just as difficult to get things started against.

Intangibles- Finally, the Tar Heels are back at home, and I think that will make a difference. No matter what happens the previous two weeks, a good home crowd will help give the team any confidence that they’re lacking at that point. While the Hokies have mostly owned the Tar Heels during their time in the ACC (8-2 vs. UNC since 2004), North Carolina knows that they need this win to stay on track for the postseason.

Strength of Schedule- Both teams play in the ‘weak’ Coastal Division (which is untrue) and have a similar nonconference schedule- 1 FCS team, East Carolina, 1 high-level Midwestern opponent and a random team. At this point, North Carolina won’t have played Notre Dame yet, but will have played #22 Clemson, a non-divisional, but important conference game nonetheless. That makes the strength of schedule kind of a wash.

Outcome- It seems improbable given the history, but due to the intangibles, I think North Carolina wins in a close one. The Hokies are unbelievably talented and capable of toppling a giant at any time, yet sometimes they let their guard down against a presumably lesser opponent. This will probably be one of those cases in a better, but still frustrating rebound season for Frank Beamer and company.

GAME 4- Saturday, October 11- AT Notre Dame (South Bend, IN)

North Carolina Tar Heels

(2-0 vs. (Win) Liberty (2-1), (Win) San Diego State (1-1))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards            Points For                    Points Against

59th, 249.0 avg.          67th, 169.5 avg.          21st, 43.5 avg.             86th, 28.0 avg.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

(3-0 vs. (Win) Rice (0-2), (Win) Michigan (2-1), (Win) Purdue (1-2))

Passing Yards             Rushing Yards             Points For                    Points Against

51st, 260 avg.              73rd, 158 avg.             48th, 36.3 avg.             4th, 10.3

Key Stat- Points Against. Like with two of their other gauntlet month opponents, the Tar Heels split categories with the Fighting Irish. Like in their game with the Hokies however, I think the defense will play an important role. Notre Dame has an almost unbelievable 10.3 points against them through week 3, including in two games against Power 5 opponents. The Tar Heels have shown flashes of offensive brilliance at times, but will have trouble scoring against one of the best defenses in the country.

Intangibles- Like with Clemson, this game is an extremely hostile stadium environment. The Tar Heels actually won the last meeting between the two teams, a 29-24 victory at home in 2008, but that doesn’t mean much now. Back then, the Irish were quarterbacked by current Chicago Bears backup Jimmy Clausen. Super Bowl Champion wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was still with North Carolina. Those guys are gone now. While the Tar Heels will have a chip on their shoulder against their halfway, sort-of, maybe conference mate, it could be an ugly trip to South Bend for the current group of players.

Strength of Schedule- It’s hard to compare the strength of schedule between these two teams. At this point, Notre Dame will have played four Power 5 teams and North Carolina only two. Still, you could argue that Clemson and Virginia Tech are probably better than Irish opponents Michigan, Purdue and Syracuse. The edge still goes with Notre Dame, but only because Stanford is an important test the week before.

Outcome- North Carolina will play well, especially one-time Irish recruit Elijah Hood, but so will one-time Tar Heel enrollee, Irish quarterback Everett Golson. It’s an awkward meeting between two schools that have 18 games under their belt, but more recent recruiting drama than actual contests. Look for the Irish to come out on top because of their defense and their home crowd.

Conclusion

It’s impossible to be confident in any of these predictions, especially since a lot can change in the next few weeks. Injuries. Losses, Loss of confidence. But one thing is certain- North Carolina has a long road ahead of them. If they can come out of this stretch with at least two wins, they should feel really good about their bowl chances, despite additional difficult contests, including at rival Duke for the school’s first Thursday night game. Still, above anything, it should say a lot about the direction the team is heading, for this season, and the foreseeable future.

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