UNC and Virginia may be the South's Oldest Rivalry, but of late the games have had as much impact as the annual Harvard-Yale match. The last game of any importance was the 1996 game in Charlottesville that kept UNC out of a Bowl Alliance game. For that matter, the last year both teams finished with winning records was 1998. The Cavaliers have had two coaching changes since then, and the Tar Heels three. This season wasn't supposed to be any more exciting, but both teams will meet in Chapel Hill on Saturday undefeated, with the promise of a big season ahead. Can the Cavaliers come out ahead?
Virginia has been almost the mirror image of Carolina this season so far. Both teams cruised to easy victories over 1-AA teams, before having turnover-plagued games in their second week. Both schools are starting new, sophomore quarterbacks – Michael Rocco for UVa and Bryn Renner for the Heels. Both have installed a new, young running back in tandem with a veteran, and the rookie is is finding the end zone more than almost anyone else in the ACC. (Kevin Parks leads all scorers with five touchdowns for UVa, while Giovani Bernard has four for UNC.)
The difference is defense. North Carolina has more sacks than anyone else in the conference, and the best rushing defense by a large margin. And that's a big problem for Virginia, because the rushing game is how the Cavs most often find the end zone. The passing game can have its good stretches – Rocco completed the first 11 passes of his career – but it's Parks and Perry Jones who are the main engine of this team. If the Heels can force UVa to the air, and then not have the secondary collapse, they should keep the Wahoo offense off the field.
As for Virginia's defense, they're hard to read. They haven't truly been tested, but the passing defense seems stronger than rushing side of things. That's the result of a quality secondary, anchored by Chase Minnifield, more than a pass rush that has only managed four sacks. With UNC's offensive line, Renner shouldn't be pressured into bad throws, but he's been known to make poor decision on his own. Keeping the turnovers to a minimum is going to be critical.
UNC was thought to be the better team coming into this season, and they've played better in the first two weeks. The margin wasn't as great as you'd expect, though. And UNC played poorly at times last week against Rutgers, coughing the ball up too often and keeping their opponents alive with stupid penalties. With a disciplined style of play, the Heels can win easily, but a second week of chaos could end the conference race for UNC as soon as it starts. Remember, Carolina last won their conference opener in 2000; that's a long streak of its own that needs breaking.