CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 23 North Carolina travels to Tallahassee this weekend with hopes of securing the program’s most significant road win in 20 years.
On Sept. 7, 1996, the Tar Heels defeated Donovan McNabb and No. 9 Syracuse, 27-10, at the Carrier Dome. UNC is 2-22 against AP Top-25 opponents on the road since then, and neither of those teams were ranked as high as No. 12 Florida State.
It’s a daunting challenge for a UNC team coming off an emotional last-second ACC-opening win over Pittsburgh, although the odds have dramatically improved over the past month. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Tar Heels a 19.6 percent chance of winning, which has inched up in recent weeks.
The reason? The stout Florida State defense that so many prognosticators forecasted has yet to arrive. The Seminoles rank 108th in scoring defense (35.0), 99th in rushing defense (205.8), 86th in total defense (413.5) and T-121st in yards per play allowed (6.8). Those numbers make UNC’s defensive struggles look average by comparison. The Tar Heels rank 84th in scoring defense (30.0), 118th in rushing defense (240.3), 90th in total defense (424.8) and 83rd in yards per play allowed (5.6).
A more nuanced look, however, illustrates the difference in offensive firepower both defenses encountered in September. Florida State held all four of its opponents – Ole Miss, Charleston Southern, Louisville and South Florida – below their season averages for points and total yards, while holding all but South Florida at least a full yard below their yards-per-play average. UNC, on the other hand, has held only two of its four opponents below their season averages in points, total yards and yards per play. Pitt matched its season average in points with 36 at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.
Regardless, those defensive woes likely have both offenses salivating. FSU is averaging 43.0 points per game, slightly ahead of UNC’s 41.3 points-per-game mark.
UNC is also currently an 11-point underdog, and its last road win as a double-digit dog, oddly enough, was at Florida State in 2010. The Tar Heels have won four games as a road or neutral dog under Larry Fedora, and have been competitive in 10 losses, losing by an average of 9.4 points per game.
Fedora, who is 2-8 against AP Top-25 opponents as UNC’s head coach, remains in search of a signature win during his five-year tenure in Chapel Hill. Despite an 11-game winning streak in 2015 en route to a Coastal Division title, media pundits dismissed the remarkable run by questioning the strength of schedule.
With Florida State up next, those questions will be answered far earlier this season.
“This year we’ve got Florida State this week and we go into a stretch of games where people are ranked and have a bunch of momentum,” junior wide receiver Austin Proehl said. “I think that’s huge for us. It makes everybody on this team have to step up and really realize what’s in front of us and what we have to do to win big games.”
One lingering for the Tar Heels is their inability to secure a program-defining win on a big stage. UNC has faltered in its season openers the past two years against inferior SEC opponents, and is 11-26-1 all-time in games in which both teams are ranked.null