CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 17 North Carolina can potentially wrap up its first-ever ACC Coastal Division title with a win over Miami on Senior Day.
If Duke defeats Pitt earlier in the day, the Tar Heels (8-1, 5-0 ACC) can clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game by extending their current winning streak to nine games, which would be the longest single-season winning streak in school history.
UNC is a 13-point favorite over Miami (6-3, 3-2 ACC), although the Tar Heels are well aware of the 47-20 dismantling they suffered in South Florida last season.
“They punked us, and they punked us early,” junior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “So we’re definitely not looking past them or worried about this and that. We’re focused 100 percent on Miami so that we don’t have any slip-ups.”
While fans have spent the week debating the possibilities of a playoff appearance after UNC moved into the rankings at No. 23 on Tuesday, the obstacles between now and then are daunting. UNC’s final three opponents of the regular season – Miami, Virginia Tech and N.C. State – outscored the Tar Heels by a 116-44 margin in a trio of blowouts in 2014.
If the Tar Heels are able to win the Coastal, they would play No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. UNC has not won the ACC title since 1980.
Those hurdles help explain why head coach Larry Fedora has dismissed talk of rankings and divisional titles in recent weeks.
“It's not something that I lose any sleep over or think about because I don't control any of that,” Fedora said. “It is what it is. I mean, we're just going to keep playing. We just need to find a way to outscore Miami this week.”
The Hurricanes have rallied around interim head coach Larry Scott following the dismissal of Al Golden last month, winning back-to-back ACC games to remain in contention for the Coastal Division crown.
UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik praised Miami’s offense earlier this week as the best his unit has encountered this season. Miami, led by quarterback Brad Kaaya (160-of-255, 2,137 yards, 12 TD, 3 INT), ranks 62nd nationally in total offense (403.2 ypg) and 67th in scoring offense (28.8). Those statistics appear pedestrian due to struggles in third down conversion (36.9, 88th) and red zone efficiency (83.7, T-69th) rates.
Chizik’s defense is coming off its first letdown of 2015, allowing season-highs in total offense, rushing offense and explosive plays in the 66-31 win over Duke. The Blue Devils’ 31 points were the most that UNC has given up since beating Georgia Tech, 38-31, on Oct. 3.
“We expect to win the game on defense,” senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “That’s what Coach Chizik preaches to us a lot. We don’t need our offense to score 50 points. We should be able to win the game on defense.”
Even so, the defensive errors were shielded by an exquisite display of offensive efficiency against the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels rolled up 704 total yards of offense last weekend, good for third-most in school history, and are now averaging 7.64 yards per play on the season, which is second nationally only to Baylor (8.36).
Miami’s defense (410.0 ypg, 75th; 26.9 ppg, 68th) has been caught off guard at times this season against teams that run HUNH offenses, although defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has a solid track record in containing Fedora’s offense. UNC has averaged 20.3 points per game against the Hurricanes over the last three years.
“We need to understand the tempo,” Scott said. “We’ve got to be able to handle the up-tempo style of offense. We got to be able to get the call, get aligned, get into a defense that our kids can execute and play at a high level, tackle and cover, just be fundamental. Really the biggest part is just to match the tempo.”
UNC controls its own destiny and can clinch the Coastal with two wins in its final three regular season games, regardless of what happens in other divisional contests. Miami needs to win out and hope either Virginia Tech or N.C. State can upset the Tar Heels to advance to Charlotte.