CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A week after improving to 2-0 in ACC play for the first time since 1997, the Tar Heels will attempt more reproductions of Mack Brown’s final year at UNC by moving to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play against Virginia.
The Tar Heels (5-1, 2-0 ACC) and Cavaliers (2-4, 1-1 ACC) are playing for the 120th time, joining Minnesota-Wisconsin (124) and Missouri-Kansas (120) as the only college football rivalries to play at least 120 games. UNC leads the all-time series with Virginia, 62-53-4, and has won five in a row against the Cavaliers for the first time since winning nine straight from 1974-82.
UNC is favored by 17.5 points over a Cavaliers team that’s been tough difficult to gauge this season. Virginia lost on a last-second touchdown pass to No. 11 Notre Dame a week before slipping past FCS opponent William & Mary with a 35-29 victory and losing to Boise State by 42 points.
The Cavaliers have been competitive in ACC play, dropping a 26-19 contest at No. 25 Pittsburgh two weeks ago before outlasting Syracuse, 44-38, in triple overtime last week.
“Their four losses have been against teams that all have been ranked sometime this year,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “I think they're much better than what people give them credit for. They've played some tough teams. They've played them well. They just didn't get over the hump in those games.”
UNC’s schedule has been rather tame compared to Virginia’s slate. The Cavaliers’ strength of schedule is currently ranked eighth nationally; the Tar Heels’ SOS is No. 100. Along those lines, Virginia’s FBS opponents to date are 19-9 against FBS competition, whereas UNC’s FBS opponents are 9-15 against FBS competition.
“We play who’s on our schedule, just like UVa plays who’s on their schedule,” UNC senior quarterback Marquise Williams said. “They compete with those guys on their schedule and we compete with the guys on our schedule. You’ve just got to go out and execute. It doesn’t matter who is on the schedule.”
To that point, it’s not as though the Tar Heels have struggled against lesser competition. UNC is averaging 46 points per game during its five-game winning streak while only giving up 17.4 points per game.
An improved offensive line has allowed the Tar Heels to thrive offensively, particularly in the ground game. A year removed from averaging 3.93 yards per carry against FBS competition, UNC has increased that mark to 6.75 yards per carry through six games in 2015.
Sophomore running back Elijah Hood has been a catalyst in that transformation, leading UNC with 545 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a 6.9 yards-per-carry average, good for 13th nationally among running backs averaging a minimum of 10 carries per game.
“Elijah is an excellent running back,” Virginia head coach Mike London said. “... And when you look at him, he also catches the football. It leads to the dynamic of having a very accomplished running back in there and then a quarterback that's also accomplished in running the ball, as well. It causes issues for defenses to make sure that you have all your gaps and assignments taken care of.”
The Cavaliers rank 81st nationally in total defense (413.0 ypg) and 111th in scoring defense (36.2), yet are third in the ACC in red zone touchdown percentage defense (46.2).
Offensively, junior quarterback Matt Johns (61.3 completion percentage, 1,432 passing yards, 11 TD, 8 INT) directs a unit that has tallied 39 plays of 20 yards or more, including five touchdown passes of 40 yards or more, through six games. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild runs a pro-style multiple offense heavy on motions and shifts that is averaging 25.8 points per game (T-86th).
"They’re probably the best offense we've played, in my opinion," UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. "The offensive line is really well coached, very sound in what they do. The record to me is definitely deceiving. There are some wins they left out there that they really could've and should've had… We're going to have to play really well defensively to stop these guys."
Chizik’s defense has risen to every challenge thus far, holding its four FBS opponents to 24 second-half points. The Tar Heels rank 18th nationally in scoring defense (17.3) and 35th in total defense (349.3).
UNC is currently the lone unranked Power 5 conference team with just one loss. That likely will change on Sunday if the Tar Heels stretch their winning streak to six games, yet another accomplished that hasn’t occurred since 1997.