Virginia Tech is coming off a win against Miami that saw the Hokies jump out to a 28-0 lead, then nearly blow it late when Miami tied the game at 35 in the fourth quarter. Before that, VT laid a goose egg against Duke, losing 45-10. Which Hokies team shows up next Saturday is anyone's guess.
The only ranked team in that group is No. 20 Virginia, currently 4-1 and 2-0 in the ACC. The Cavaliers currently have the No. 10 total defense in the nation and the No. 20 passing defense, allowing just 184 yards per game through the air. That will be a tough one for the Tar Heels to win, especially if they keep losing key players to injury.
With all the toss-up games remaining, there's a couple key areas North Carolina will either need to improve in, or continue to do well in to finish strong in the latter half of the season.
First, Sam Howell will have to continue to play at his current level — he leads the ACC in both touchdown passes and passing yards. The Tar Heel offense has lived and died by him this season, and Howell will need to continue avoiding turnovers and making big plays down field.
To that end, Howell, coordinator Phil Longo and the entire offense need to find a way to convert more third downs. UNC has been one of the worst teams in the country at converting on third downs, completing only 34 out of 94 attempts. It's been better the last two games, 15/31 combined against Clemson and Georgia Tech — but finding a way to consistently extend drives will keep the UNC defense fresh.
On the other side of the ball, what defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has done with a depleted defense might be the most impressive thing about UNC this season. The Tar Heels are missing Patrice Rene, Myles Wolfolk and Cam'Ron Kelly, all contributors in the secondary, along with a host of others missing time with nicks and bruises.
With the competitive games UNC has left, the defense will need to work some more magic with its remaining healthy players. Despite a 3-3 record, North Carolina has yet to keep an opponent under 20 points this season, including less-than-stellar offensive teams like Miami and Georgia Tech.
If UNC can tighten the screws on defense, and keep Howell rolling on offense, there's a good chance it will be playing come December.
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