CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 23 North Carolina travels to Tallahassee in a preferable position, entering its matchup with No. 12 Florida State as a double-digit road dog with little public expectation for victory.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives UNC (3-1, 1-0 ACC) a 19.6 percent chance for the upset at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Seminoles (3-1, 0-1 ACC) are favored by 10.5 points, which equates to a 75 percent straight-up win likelihood, according to Stassen.com. Brian Fremeau’s FEI projections indicate Florida State has an 87.9 percent likelihood of winning its ACC home opener.
UNC is 2-8 against AP Top-25 ranked opponents during the Larry Fedora era. The Tar Heels are also 4-12 under Fedora as an underdog.
All of those statistics point to a Florida State win on Saturday, although if UNC’s win over Pittsburgh proved anything, it’s that Fedora’s offense is elite, and elite offenses offer the potential for upsets. The win over Pitt marked the fifth time since 2014 the Tar Heels rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to secure a win.
That doesn’t include UNC’s late charge against No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game last December, in which the Tar Heels battled back from a 19-point second-half deficit only to be denied a chance at a tying score in the final minute by a botched officiating call.
Despite failing to play a perfect game against Pitt – UNC’s first-quarter highlights included an offensive safety and a fumble – the Tar Heels made enough plays in the fourth quarter to pull off an improbable comeback.
"I hope it boosts the confidence of the team,” Fedora said this week. “I think they feel good about themselves. I think they believe in what we're doing. I think they believe in each other, and they truly believe that as long as they continue to work hard and prepare the right way that they can win any game that they play. Basically you're never out of them, you just keep fighting.”
Amplifying UNC’s threat of an upset is the play of junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who ranks second in the ACC in QB passer rating (178.6) and has completed 74.5 percent of his passes for 1,306 yards and 10 touchdowns without an interception. As a result UNC ranks sixth nationally in yards per play (7.4), which bodes well against a Florida State defense allowing 6.8 yards per play (121st).
The Seminoles’ defense has been plagued by missed assignments and injuries, although a more simplified approach against an explosive South Florida offense provided reasons for optimism moving forward.
“We’re making progress there defensively,” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Gave up some plays early, and then played really well on defense about a game and a half and then got a couple key injuries. Some of these young guys are starting to evolve. Was very proud in the last game. Gave up plays early, not very happy with that, and then went nine straight series and played outstanding. [We] had three-and-outs against a very athletic, good team from South Florida.”
UNC’s defensive staff and players preferred to talk more about three late three-and-outs against Pittsburgh than the full game stats, and for good reason. The Tar Heels rank 89th in total defense (424.8), T-83rd in scoring defense (30.0) and 82nd in yards per play allowed (5.6).
The crux of the defensive issues continues to be an inability to stop the run consistently. UNC ranks 118th nationally in run defense, allowing 240.3 yards per game at a 5.0 yards-per-carry clip. That doesn’t bode well for an FSU offense that features Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook, who is averaging 6.4 yards per carry and 123.8 rushing yards per game.
“Each and every week we say that we've got to get better at limiting the run because I don't think with the quality of the running backs that we've played that you're going to sit there and just stop it,” Fedora said. “We're not going to be able to put enough guys in there to stop it because they can also beat you throwing, and we don't want to do it that way. So we're going to get as many guys involved in the box as we need to to limit the run.”
UNC ranks 126th nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for less than 23 minutes per game. That’s largely a result of opponents leaning on their run game to control the clock and keep the Tar Heel offense off the field.
“We need to be able to control the ball more, convert more third downs, keep our defense off the field and keep on finishing in the end zone,” Trubisky said.
There is some history in play as well. The last time UNC played at Doak Campbell Stadium was on Nov. 6, 2010. The Tar Heels were 10.5-point underdogs in that game, and pulled off the upset with a 37-35 victory.