Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. VT

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Virginia Tech rolls into Chapel Hill this weekend, the Hokies will do so as underdogs to North Carolina. It's been nearly a decade since the Tar Heels have participated in a contest of this magnitude, but if UNC is serious about the ACC Championship, it all starts on Saturday.

North Carolina is 2-0 for the first time since 2000 and is looking for its first 3-0 start since 1997. And while Virginia Tech (2-1) has not been as dominant this fall as in recent seasons, it's worth noting that the Hokies own a 15-1 road record in ACC games since joining the league in 2004 and are a stunning 17-0 in conference road openers under Frank Beamer.

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If there's anyone enjoying the underdog role more than Tech's head coach, they're hard to find. For a program with a couple of ACC Championships in its pockets – including the 2007 title – it's been rare in recent years to watch games in which Virginia Tech was not favored.

"I think [UNC is] the best football we've played, and we've played a couple pretty good football teams, so we've got our hands full," Beamer said.

That's high praise considering the Hokies lost to No. 15 East Carolina and slipped by a tough Georgia Tech squad last weekend. By lifting up the Tar Heels, Beamer is effectively applying the pressure to a young North Carolina program that is desperate to become relevant once again in the ACC.

"We know it's our first ACC game – our first game that actually counts," sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates said. "Everybody knows how big of a game this is, and it's on national television… But we're trying not to lose our focus."

The Tar Heels overlooked McNeese State in the season opener, squeaking past the FCS opponent with a 35-27 victory, before showing out on the national stage last Thursday with a 44-12 dismantling of Rutgers. UNC head coach Butch Davis reprimanded his team for its performance against the Cowboys, but he has also been cautious in his praise for Game 2's results.

He's told reporters several times this week that his team must play better on Saturday than it did against the Scarlet Knights, or they will lose. Davis has also done his best to minimize the importance of this league-opening contest.

"It's going to give somebody in this division a leg up," Davis said. "But it's still only the third week of the season. It's the first conference game. It's a big one. I told our football team that this is how you start to measure your football program by playing good teams… But it's only going to tell us where we are after the third week of the season."

Managing those expectations is key for a young squad that is still learning to win, but there's no doubting the fact that North Carolina can defeat Virginia Tech for the first time in ACC play (0-4). The Hokies rank 107th nationally with 273 offensive yards per game, thanks in large part to the soap opera taking place in Blacksburg with quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster's typically stout defense has also struggled, ranking 58th nationally in total defense (334.33) and 89th in pass defense efficiency (134.77). The Hokies are forcing turnovers, however, to the tune of a 1.33 margin (18th nationally).

North Carolina's defense has labored as well, giving up 387 yards per game (11th in the ACC). Fortunately for the Tar Heels, Brandon Tate and his 308 all-purpose yards per outing are wearing Carolina blue on Saturday.

Even if Davis is unwilling to admit it, the players know how great of an opportunity this contest presents for their program.

"It's been in the back of my mind because I knew we had to play Virginia Tech, but it's not something I've been dwelling on or thinking about when we were preparing for McNeese [State] or Rutgers," junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said. "Now that it's here, I can say that we're going to prepare very well for it, like we did against Rutgers, and do what we have to do to win the ball game."

Kick-off is at 3:30 p.m. and will be aired regionally on ABC.

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