TV: JP Sports – Steve Martin (play-by-play), Doc Walker (analyst), Mike Hogewood (sideline)
Site: Bobby Dodd Stadium/Grant Field (55,000 grass)
Records: Georgia Tech (5-4, 3-3 ACC); UNC (2-8, 1-5 ACC)
Series: Georgia Tech leads 19-16-1
Rankings: Neither team is ranked
Coaches: Georgia Tech – Chan Gailey, 2nd season 12-10-0, .545; UNC – John Bunting, 3rd season, 13-22-0 .371
Last Meeting: Georgia Tech 21, UNC 13 on Sept. 28, 2002, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Line: Tech by 10
Often the road to recovery is maintained one step at a time. First the Tar Heels got their first win of the season, then their first conference win, and now they look for their first back-to-back victories since beating SMU and Auburn to end the 2001 season. The Yellow Jackets (5-4, 3-3 ACC) had a four-game win streak snapped in a 41-17 loss to Duke, which in turn ended the Blue Devils' 30-game conference losing streak.
Which team is hungrier will be determined on Saturday in Atlanta, a place Carolina has not won since a 16-13 decision in 1997. On paper, it appears to be a match-up destined for stalemate.
While Carolina is averaging 399.7 yards per game of total offense – it's highest average since 1994 - Tech's defense ranks third in the league in total defense, allowing just 321.6 yards per game. The difference in this game could be determined when the Jackets have the ball and the Tar Heels are on defense – a battle of ineptness – with each team occupying the cellar in its respective scoring categories.
The continued success of the Carolina running game should take a big weight off of Darian Durant's shoulders. His skills and ability to take over a game are well known, but now with the pressure of not having to be the team's leading rusher will only make him more efficient. Reggie Ball, who has more than a legitimate shot at conference Rookie of the Year honors, needs just 128 yards passing and 213 yards of total offense to surpass Shawn Jones's school records a freshman quarterback. Ball is the future, but Durant is the present.
UNC's rushing attack has come alive over the last five games, including freshman Ronnie McGill's 244-yard, three-touchdown outburst against Wake Forest last week. With the gradual, but steady increase in its production, the light appears to have clicked on; and there is no reason to believe that the Tar Heels can't continue to rush the ball effectively for their remaining two games. P.J. Daniels is averaging 88.2 yards per game and Tech as a team grinds out 128.3 yards per game, but McGill and the rest of the Carolina backs have moved up those lists quickly.
Jarwarski Pollock is the ACC leader with 11 receptions per game, and the dangerous Mike Mason continues to amaze with his five touchdowns on the year, both receiving and returning the ball. But that is not all. Carolina also features tight end Bobby Blizzard, along with a stable of receivers and running backs that can take it to the house. But the Tar Heel secondary will have to keep their eye on Jonathan Smith, who leads the ACC and ranks 14th nationally averaging 96.9 receiving yards per game. UNC has too many big play weapons running short and deep routes.
As it should have, a good deal of the drippings from a 251-yard rushing day went to the Carolina offensive line last Saturday. The Tar Heels have become a mature, solid unit up front, and the lofty offensive numbers prove it. However, the Yellow Jackets possess two of the best as well in tackle Nat Dorsey and center Hugh Reilly. Games are often decided up front, so this battle could decide the outcome of the game.
Moving Chase Page, a former offensive lineman, from defensive tackle to end and the insertion of Shelton Bynum alongside fellow freshman Isaiah Thomas at tackles was clearly the best arrangement of the season. Look for defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable to stick with that starting lineup as it begins to gel. With end Eric Henderson and linebacker Keyaron Fox – the league's leading tackler – Tech ranks in the nation's Top 25 in nearly every defensive category. Although the bottom appears to be in the past for UNC's front seven, it's still a major work in progress and will likely yield big numbers again this week.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
Not only was Michael Waddell a monster on special teams against Wake, but he also had his finest outing at cornerback since his second-team All-ACC season he enjoyed as a sophomore. If he can round out his collegiate career on a high note, and Lionell Green continues his strong play, Carolina might be able to get through a game without getting beat by the deep ball. However Tech's backfield, led by free safety James Butler and corner Jonathan Fox, is a big reason for the all-important defensive balance that makes the Yellow Jackets formidable. But there are still too many hills yet to climb for UNC's defense, and too many safeties and corners having to play soft in coverage in order to stop the rush.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
Winning the battle on special teams has a lot to do with emotion, and the Tar Heels are brimming with confidence after blocking three kicks and twice forcing fumbles in kick coverage which crippled the Deacs. The Tar Heels have found their punter in the line-drive kicking David Woolridge, and Dan Orner and Topher Roberts rarely let the team down. Tech's return numbers are nondescript and its kicking game is in transition.
Prediction: UNC 38, Georgia Tech 35