Every once in a while, college football reminds you how difficult it is to win.
North Carolina blew a huge game against a Duke team in front of a healthy number of Tar Heel fans who braved the cold, to say nothing of the abominable parking situation (don’t get me started), only to watch the team lay an egg at the very moment their fans were having giddy conversations about whether this year’s team was better than the one that won 11 games last season, and which New Year’s Six bowl would be the most fun to attend.
It turns out this seems to be going around.
Saturday was one of those maddening, thrilling, depressing, improbable, wonderful college football days that reminds you of one of the core beauties of the sport: every game matters, and every win has to be earned.
Doesn’t matter who you are. On Saturday, being ranked in the top 10 was a pretty good predictor that you were about to lose a football game: Six of them lost, including the #2, #3, and #4 teams in the country. Five of the six lost to unranked teams, including the presumptive ACC Atlantic Division champions.
In one of the least welcome pieces of good news ever encountered in Tar Heel Nation, Virginia Tech was another of the fallen. The only thing standing between the Hokies and a berth in the ACC title game was a mediocre Georgia Tech team coming to Blacksburg and playing without their quarterback. So of course the Yellow Jackets ran out to a 20 point lead and never looked back, embarrassing Virginia Tech in front of its home fans. That means that the Duke debacle cost the Tar Heels control of the Coastal, just in case it wasn’t unpleasant enough for you on Thursday night.
But it also means that means the door is open, and that the Tar Heels sit in essentially the same position in the Coastal they had beforehand: tied, and needing help from Virginia Tech.
So can lightning strike twice? At risk of looking ahead – be forewarned, the undefeated Citadel football team is no joke – let’s take a look at what will be occupying us all on Thanksgiving weekend.
Speaking of which, the first thing to take note of is the schedule. UNC hosts NCSU on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Whether you’re planning to go or merely use the occasion to entertain yourself as you recover from your tryptophan coma and hide from your weird uncle, you’ll know by Friday whether you’ll need to spend your Saturday undertaking the dirty work of being a UVa fan, or can just turn your attention to leftover stuffing and hoping none of the people who have at that point overstayed their welcome talk too much about the election.
Much will undoubtedly be written here on the Tar Heel Blog to preview the NC State game, so we’ll leave most of that conversation for a later time. To touch on it quickly, however, UNC should be a solid favorite over the Wolfpack, but will not likely find the game to be easy sledding. While State is not an especially efficient team offensively (they rank 61st in yards per play), they have a stone-cold killer at running back, Matthew Dayes, who’s better than anyone Duke had available on Thursday night. The threat of another afternoon of death-by-running game is on the table. Add to this an underrated defensive front (NCSU rates 25th in defensive efficiency), plus the general rivalry game factors, and well, let’s hope the Tar Heels do their homework. In the spirit of the holidays, though, let’s assume the Tar Heels send the seniors off right, and take a look at whether UVa has a promising path to an upset that would put UNC back into the ACC title game.
On the surface, it doesn’t look promising. The last time Virginia beat a Virginia Tech football team, we were in the first term of the George W. Bush presidency and there was no such thing as an iPhone. That’s a streak of 12 straight, the longest in the history of the rivalry. Everyone likes to say that in a rivalry game anything can happen, but when it comes to UVa-Virginia tech, pretty much only one thing seems to happen.
If North Carolina is going to sneak into the ACC title game through the back door, then, something’s going to have to change. So maybe it’s a good thing that this game involves a lot of it: two new coaches, one trying to replace a legend and to take advantage of a second chance handed to him by the Duke game, and the other trying to resurrect a program that desperately needs to make a statement against a rival that has spent years eating their lunch on the recruiting trail.
There’s little real question that Bronco Mendenhall can be a successful football coach from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Virginia knew what they were getting on that front; Mendenhall has a lot of college football wins in his history. The unknown is whether a coach whose home turf is the Mormon west can persuade kids in Virginia’s recruiting footprint to trust that Virginia is on a new path. A win at Virginia Tech can do more on that front than any silver-tongued recruiting pitch can accomplish, and it is safe to assume that the Cavaliers’ coaching staff has had this game circled for quite some time. They will pull out everything they’ve got to make this game a keystone in their rebuilding project.
But can they do it? On paper, the path seems awfully narrow. The Cavaliers’ offense is among the weakest in the country, rating 124th in yards per play, and their defense isn’t much better, rating 103rd in yards per play allowed. There is no doubt that Virginia Tech is simply better. But they’re not a great team, either – their offensive efficiency is well below average (71st), opening the door to a scenario in which Virginia establishes an early lead and forces the Hokies to play catchup. Defense is another story – the real gap between these two teams is their ability to defend. To upset Virginia Tech, Virginia will need to overcome a defense that rates 17th in defensive efficiency.
The reason to invest some hope in a Virginia upset is something that the statistics don’t explain well, which is that both of these teams periodically show a significant variance from their statistical baselines. In Virginia’s case, this showed up most prominently in what probably should have been a win against CFP contender Louisville. Virginia, a 33 point underdog, controlled the game and went ahead with 1:57 left when Mendenhall went for 2 instead of settling for a tie, a move that should earn him a lot of goodwill in Charlottesville. Louisville, though, got bailed out by their Heisman frontrunner with 13 seconds remaining. Virginia’s relatively easy win at Duke is another example of Mendenhall’s team doing something they shouldn’t.
Which brings us to Virginia Tech. Justin Fuente’s rebuild is ahead of schedule, but his team has now twice sleepwalked against teams that the numbers say they should have handled. This includes a thumping at the hands of a defensively-atrocious Syracuse team (they’re statistically worse than Virginia, but the Hokies couldn’t break 17 points), and now Georgia Tech, each time putting their claim on the Coastal title in jeopardy.
They can be had, even by the likes of Virginia. Which means that although you may not want to get your hopes up, Tar Heel fans should make sure they’re including football in their Thanksgiving Saturdays. Because as we learned again this week, every victory has to be earned.