Third-year UNC head coach and former Miami head coach Butch Davis has directed the Tar Heels to four-straight victories over ranked opponents, most recently upsetting No. 14 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Oct. 29. A win on Saturday over the 12th-ranked Hurricanes would count as UNC's biggest victory – with regard to the polls – since the school's 31-28 upset of No. 4 Miami back in 2004.
"Watching North Carolina on tape, their record does not indicate what kind of team this is," Miami coach Randy Shannon said. " … That team beat Virginia Tech so they are clearly capable of doing great things. We need to focus on this game completely and nothing else. We are 0-3 playing in North Carolina so our main goal this week is focusing on making that record 1-3."
One more notch in the win column qualifies North Carolina for its second-consecutive bowl berth for the first time since playing in seven straight bowls from 1992-98, but when Davis was asked earlier this week if he had talked to his players about their postseason options, he simply responded, "Nope, not at all."
For good reason, too – Miami brings a lethal combination of offensive and defensive talent to town in hopes of improving to 5-2 in league play. The Hurricanes need No. 7 Georgia Tech to lose at Duke on Saturday in order to control their destiny in reaching the school's first ACC Championship game.
Miami's defense is allowing 327.6 yards per game (5th ACC, 30th nationally) despite dealing with double-digit personnel losses due to injury.
North Carolina's offense (294.3 ypg) still ranks near the bottom of the league standings, but the Tar Heels have found their ground game in recent weeks, rushing for an average of 193.8 yards over the last outings – Georgia Southern (164), Florida State (238), Virginia Tech (181) and Duke (192).
Starting running back Shaun Draughn (shoulder) was lost for the season after being speared in the back on the opening play of last week's 19-6 win over Duke, but junior Ryan Houston stepped right in and tallied career-bests totals of 164 yards and 37 carries.
Despite making his first start of the season against Miami's athletic front seven, Houston (451 yards, 7 TD) is well-versed in the scheme that offensive coordinator John Shoop plans to employ.
"I know the plays," Houston said. "I've known them for going on three years now. I'm not going to hesitate when I'm out there."
On the flip side of the field, quarterback Jacory Harris (2,336 yards, 18 TD, 12 INT, 149.67 passing efficiency) is guiding a Miami offense that is posting 402.0 yards and 32.2 points per contest. The sophomore is the fourth straight quarterback UNC has faced who led the conference in either passing yards per game or passing efficiency in that specific week.
But Harris isn't the Hurricanes' only weapon the backfield – running backs Graig Cooper (59.8 ypg, 2TD) and Javarris James (52.6 ypg, 4 TD) both rank in the ACC's top-10 in rushing yards.
"You wish that they were one-dimensional," Davis said. "Sometimes we've been fortunate, as in the case with the game last week where Duke came in throwing the ball close to 400 yards per game and virtually nonexistent as far as attempts in trying to run the football…
"[The Hurricanes] have changed their scheme and subsequently, they're explosive in the running game because they've got guys that can make people miss and they can score from anywhere on the field and they have a quarterback that has got a lot of targets."
Defensive end Robert Quinn (10.0 sacks – sixth nationally, 15.5 TFL – 5th nationally) and linebacker Quan Sturdivant (59 tackles, 9.5 TFL) lead a UNC defense that ranks fifth nationally in giving up just 249.4 yards per game. The Hurricanes' offensive line is vulnerable to penetration, allowing 2.9 sacks per contest (105th).
"Their front seven is outstanding, and their linebackers are good," Harris said. "Oklahoma was very good, but overall North Carolina is the best that we're going to see."
Kickoff is set for 3:30pm on ABC.