Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. UMd

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Thanks to the "don't blink" nature of this ACC season, No. 17 North Carolina once again controls its own fate in reaching the league's title game. But the Tar Heels must first find a way to escape College Park on Saturday with a win, as Maryland boasts a 5-0 home record.

North Carolina (7-2, 3-2 ACC) received much-needed help from Miami on Thursday night, as the Hurricanes defeated Virginia Tech, 16-14. UNC and Miami are currently the only two teams in the Coastal Division with two losses, and the Tar Heels own the tiebreaker with their South Florida counterparts.

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Countdown to Kickoff
But Maryland (6-3, 3-2 ACC) is still in thick of things in the Atlantic Division, needing to win its final three games for its first appearance in the ACC Championship Game. This game is destined to be competitive, as four of the Terrapins' contests have been decided by eight points or less, while five of North Carolina's games meet that criteria.

"I've been associated with this league for about 40 years and I don't think it has ever been like this," Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen said. "The parity in the league is like no other in the country. It is who is ready to play that day. Injuries play a factor, emotional and mental outlook is important also. I think that's what is very exciting about this league, and going into it there are eight or nine teams that probably still have a chance at winning the ACC championship."

The Terrapins are the perfect microcosm for this unpredictable league. They have upset three ranked opponents (California, Clemson and Wake Forest), while losing to Middle Tennessee State and narrowly getting by FCS member Delaware, 14-7.

"Maryland is a team that you never know what you're going to get with them," UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. "Sometimes they come out and play great, and sometimes they come out and don't play to their potential. So we have to go out there and play to our potential, and not worry about what Maryland's going to do."

UNC head coach Butch Davis has stressed the complexity of Maryland's pro-style offense, complete with a multiple personnel groupings. Quarterback Chris Turner ranks second in the ACC in passing efficiency (185.3 ypg, 9 TD, 6 INT for a 128.3 rating), while running back Da'Rel Scott (91.1 ypg, 5 TD) and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (30 receptions for 496 yards) provide serious playmaking ability at the skill positions.

Part of the reason for the Terrapins' success this fall is directly related to the number of veterans occupying the two-deep – 29 of those players are juniors or seniors.

"They are a very experienced football team," Davis said. "They had a lot of success last year, and a lot of those guys are back, so how well they've played this year doesn't come as a surprise."

North Carolina counters with its opportunistic defense that leads the nation in interceptions (18 – tied with Boston College) and ranks fourth in turnover margin (plus-1.44). And while the Tar Heels' total defensive yardage stats may not be eye-popping (349.2 ypg), their scoring defense numbers (18.4 ppg) definitely have been. Despite Georgia Tech running up 423 yards of offense last Saturday in its loss to UNC, the Yellow Jackets were unable to reach the red zone.

Maryland is only allowing 19.7 points per game (7th ACC), thanks to sacks (21) and tackles for loss (50), but its run defense ranks 11th in the conference (152.3 ypg). North Carolina's emerging rushing attack will provide a serious challenge for the Terrapins' front seven.

"Offensively, they have two really good running backs – Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston, who is a beast at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds," Friedgen said. "Both of those guys are running very, very well. Their offensive line is big, strong and experienced. I think it's probably the best offensive line we've faced all year, and I see them getting better each week, so we have a real challenge defensively with their offense."

Draughn and Houston have combined for 687 yards and seven touchdowns in the last five games, capped off by 164 yards in the 21-point victory over Georgia Tech last weekend, and their contributions have helped ease the pressure on Cameron Sexton (177.3 ypg, 8 TD, 3 INT).

With three games remaining, anything can – and probably will – happen in the craziness that is the ACC. But for the first time in several decades, North Carolina controls its own destiny in the conference race in mid-November. None of that matters, however, if the Tar Heels don't take care of business against Maryland on Saturday.

Saturday's kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.(ABC/ESPN).

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