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Preview: UNC vs #24 Duke

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Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs #24 Duke, Noon, ESPN2

After two decades of this rivalry being relatively uninteresting, the past couple of seasons have produced some games with spice. Last season Duke became bowl eligible for the first time in 18 years with a win over the Tar Heels in Durham. This season the stakes are even higher. If Duke wins, they advance to the ACC Championship Game. If would be Duke's eighth straight win and complete a remarkable journey from being the worst program in college football to a ten win season.

For UNC there stakes are not at that level but there is plenty to play for. The Victory Bell, which is currently painted that other shade of blue, is something the players have said they want back. For the UNC program, a win means a 5-3 finish tying the Tar Heels with four other teams in the Coastal Division(assuming Virginia Tech wins over Virginia) for first place. It would also mark the first time since 1997 the Tar Heels have recorded back-to-back seasons at above .500 record in ACC play.

Duke's rather impressive run to 9-2 and the cusp of the ACC title game has not been highlighted tremendous performances on either side of the football. Statistically speaking Duke is about as average as you can get in terms of where the Blue Devils rank in total offense and defense. However this is a clear case where the stats don't tell the whole story. Duke has found ways to win games which is not a knock on them. Against Miami and Virginia Tech, two teams UNC committed penalties at the wrong time or didn't call a timeout with the play clock running down, the Blue Devils made the plays the needed to make. UNC went 0-3 versus Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech by a total of 22 points. Duke went 2-1 and one of those wins came in Blacksburg. That's the difference between these two teams' seasons in a nutshell.

That being said, the fact Duke hasn't necessarily overwhelmed anyone in ACC play which is to say they are vulnerable. Enter the Tar Heels who overcame a 1-5 start to win five straight games and reach bowl eligibility. During the five game winning streak the Tar Heels have made the transition to Marquise Williams at quarterback, Kareem Martin has been living up to the hype and UNC has played much better on both sides of the football. They survived a pair of offensive droughts against NC State and Pittsburgh but in those games the defense came up with plays to snuff out Panther and Wolfpack drives. By and large this team looks better and while some of that is owed in part to the schedule easing up, there is no substitute for confidence. The Tar Heels have it now and it has permeated every aspect of their game. Even Ryan Switzer has to believe he is running every punt back because it keeps happening.

In many ways this is the irresistible force meets the immovable object. Something has to give with one of these teams. Either UNC finally comes up short after five games of playing a higher level of football or Duke's incredible run comes to a screeching halt in the one game they absolutely must win to secure a berth in the ACC title game. The one X factor for UNC is Eric Ebron, who announced he will enter the NFL Draft making this his last home game. Will he go out with a bang and in turn push the Heels to a win over Duke? Can Williams and the offense continue to improve and can Martin and the defense shut down Duke's dual-quarterback system? This game is full of questions and should be one to live up to the hype.

UNC 38 Duke 28