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Game Preview: UNC at Duke


UNC(5-2) at Duke(5-2), 7:00 PM on ESPNU

There is a notion that this game "finally" has meaning. That's never been entirely true since it always has meaning for both teams considering it is a rivalry and the Victory Bell is at stake. Both teams are 5-2 which marks only the second time since 1994 that both teams have been .500 when they met on the field. The other time was 2009 when both UNC and Duke were 5-3. UNC won that game(later vacated) sending Duke into a death spiral which denied the Blue Devils bowl eligibility.

In terms of "meaning" beyond the Victory Bell, Duke is playing to their sixth win of the season which would make the Blue Devils bowl eligible for the first time since the Clinton Administration. The Blue Devils are also in a very dangerous place. After being up 20-0 at Virginia Tech, the Devils surrendered 41 unanswered points to lose big. That killed the momentum Duke had going so this game could be seen as an opportunity to avoid a death spiral. Not to mention, Duke is still in the Coastal Division race. UNC on the other hand is not eligible for a bowl nor a Coastal Division title. However this game marks the first of two straight rivalry games the Heels badly want to win to add value to a season. UNC cannot play to get to a bowl but beating both Duke and NC State plus a nice win total would be good enough to declare the season a success.

The question is what can UNC expect from Duke in this game. The Blue Devils, in five wins, have looked very impressive. The offense has hummed along at an efficient clip with the Devils have only run eleven fewer plays(513) than the Tar Heels(524) so far this season. This will certainly put the Tar Heel defense to the test from a conditioning standpoint. Duke also has two capable quarterbacks and a host of solid receiving which means UNC can expect to see the ball in the air often. Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone have been splitting time since Renfree was injured and Boone handled matters competently in a 42-17 win over Virginia. As for receiving targets, Duke has three players with 40 or more receptions on the season and two averaging over 80 yards receiving per game. Connor Vernon and Jamison Crowder are both on pace to have 1000 yards receiving on the season representing a headache for the Tar Heel secondary which will need to contend with two legitimate threats.

On the other side of the ball, UNC will do what it does in terms of tempo and balanced offense but it ultimately comes down to Giovani Bernard. The Duke defensive line has already been chirping this week that they will "have some answers" for Bernard. Duke gave up 269 yards rushing to Virginia Tech a week ago and on its schedule has not face an running back as dynamic or talented as Bernard. That is not saying Bernard is going to run roughshod over Duke but it is certainly an area of the game that favors UNC. One area that may not is the tempo and the concept Duke could be worn down as previously opponents have been. The Blue Devils have practiced extensively against a no-huddle offense which makes UNC's tempo less daunting to Duke as it may have been to other teams. In terms of what UNC might accomplish in the air, Duke is 81st against the pass but looking at the game log, Duke has only allowed 9 TDs while intercepting eight passes. Only one team broke 300 yards against the Devils and that was Florida International in the opener. On average the Duke pass defense looks, well average. Looking at the details, there seems to be more there and that is certainly a test for Bryn Renner.

Despite UNC being a 10 point favorite in this game, it is essentially a toss-up. Duke has plenty of motivation from correcting the course of the season after last week's loss to ending years of futility against UNC and finally getting bowl eligible. For UNC it is about winning one of two "Super Bowl" type games and keeping the Victory Bell safely ensconced in Chapel Hill for another season. Oh and this is a night game so the old cliche about "anything could happen" is in play.

UNC 45 Duke 41