North Carolina's front-heavy ACC schedule and their abject failure in recent weeks have left the Heels in the cellar of the Coastal Division, half a game behind Duke. Although not completely eliminated – the strange mathematics of multiple-team ties in this conference can stymie most anyone – UNC is pretty much playing for their own self-worth and near-certain bowl eligibility at this point.
But there is the mythical state championship, a pseudo-title popularized by Mack Brown back when, let's face it, his team was incapable of higher achievements. Even that goal has been out of reach of the Heels for some time. UNC last swept their in-state ACC brethren in 2004, John Bunting's Continental Tire Bowl year. That was also the last seasons before Boston College's entry into the conference, which would sunder Wake from Carolina's schedule, ending a streak of 61 consecutive meetings dating back to World War II. UNC and Wake have faced only twice since then, and not since 2007. This is pretty aggravating for Wake fans, who have a rivalry with Carolina; as a UNC fan, I really haven't noticed.
In part, this is because I grew up with the Carolina football of the '80's and '90's, when UNC won 15 of 20, including a nine game winning streak, the longest of the modern era. But also because Wake fans were pretty sparse on the ground, even in the next town over from Winston-Salem. It doesn't help that the university is often looked at as another four years of high school, with a small student body and outside of Lawrence Joel, tiny facilities. They've upgraded the stadium since I was last there, but bank sponsorship aside, it's one of the least-feared venues in the conference.
Not that it matters though, as this is the homecoming game for Carolina at Kenan, and this year's visitors are a bit of a mystery. They have only two losses on the season, first dropping their opener to Syracuse in overtime after losing QB Tanner Price to injury, and later being rolled by Virginia Tech, 38-17. Thy have one good win, over Florida State, and more than a few bad ones, culminating in last week's one point escape of Duke on the road.
The Deacons run so hot and cold in part because they have no running game. Their rushing offense trails only Duke in the ACC, in part because their leading rusher Josh Harris has missed the past two games. His replacement, Brandon Pendergrass, has been less than successful, so Wake is lucky to have Harris back. Neither should be difficult for the UNC defense to handle.
That leaves Price to shoulder the load; he's second in the ACC in passing yards, despite only 220 passing attempts, much less than Tajh Boyd and Sean Renfree, who hold the one and three slots. His favorite target is Chris Givens, the junior wideout leading the conference in receiving yards. We all saw how depleted UNC's secondary was last week, and without Matt Merletti, who's out for the season, things could get worse. Carolina can help their cause by pressuring Price, as Wake gives up the most sacks in the ACC and rarely attempts to run the ball himself.
When UNC gets the ball, they'll face an average defense that is middle-of-the-road in all statistical categories. All of their FBS opponents have scored at least nineteen points. At their best, as they were against FSU, the can force a lot of turnovers; they picked off FSU's quarterbacks a total of four times. They don't go for a lot of sacks preferring to just slow the offense down and force punts. Once an opponent makes it to the red zone, it's almost a certain score.
Carolina has failed a lot of tests recently, first their opportunity to vie for the Coastal Division title, and then to pal spoiler against the best ACC team in a decade. The expectations and the adversary are a bit smaller this week. Wake is looking to sweep its in-state opponents for the first time in ACC history, while UNC is just starting their trip through the state. A win here gets the Heels bowl eligibility and a good start into what could be a solid November. If they can't win here though, expect a lot of frustrated fans tuning out for the rest of the season.