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Reassessing UNC football’s ACC schedule

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UNC begins ACC play next week against Pitt. Three weeks in, what kind of conference opponents will the Heels face?

Cincinnati v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The first three weeks of the college football season are now complete. North Carolina is 2-1—a record most people probably expected and are content with—but the upcoming ACC slate already appears to be much more challenging than last season. UNC didn’t lose a conference game until they played Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Will that kind of winning streak happen again? Here’s a look at Carolina’s conference schedule now that we have a better understanding of all the teams they’ll face.

vs. Pittsburgh (2-1 overall) September 24

The Tar Heels will not have an easy matchup to kick off conference play. Pitt is exactly the kind of team meant to frustrate UNC. They run the ball extremely well with running back James Conner spearheading the attack. Because of their ability to run the ball, they chew up the clock, and that’ll force UNC’s defense to spend a lot of time on the field. An already weak run defense simply won’t be able to hold up for an entire game with Pitt dominating possession. Moreover, the home fans have to be better this time around. The crowd was lackluster against James Madison, and that lack of support could damage the Heels in what should be a close game.

at Florida State (2-1 overall) October 1

It’ll be easy to overreact to the Louisville-FSU game this past weekend—where Lamar Jackson and company throttled the Noles for four quarters—but this team still has a ton of talent and playmaking. Oh yeah, this game is in Tallahassee, and none of these Heels have ever even come close to playing in an atmosphere like Doak Campbell Stadium. This game has the makings of a shootout since the FSU defense has looked suspect, but the home advantage and electric running back Dalvin Cook should be too much for UNC to overcome.

vs. Virginia Tech (2-1 overall) October 8

Even three games in, the Hokies remain somewhat of a mystery. An up-and-down Tennessee team easily beat them, and they destroyed Boston College 49-0. Quarterback Jerod Evans has had a solid start with ten touchdowns to only one interception, but Mitch Trubisky and the offense shouldn’t have too much trouble scoring on this defense at home. This game also comes smack dab in the middle of UNC's toughest stretch of the season. They can't afford to slip up here after what could be an FSU loss and before a tough matchup at Miami.

at Miami (3-0 overall) October 15

This matchup in Miami didn’t seem to be particularly daunting before the season started. Now? The Hurricanes quite honestly might be the better team, and Carolina has had little success in winning in Miami. Quarterback Brad Kaaya seems to be getting better each week (368 yards and three touchdowns at App State), but the Hurricane running game has the chance to blow the Heels away. If there’s a one-two punch better than Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan in the ACC, it’s Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby. Walton has rushed for over 100 yards in all three games, while Yearby has in two of the three. UNC’s rush defense has to get better by this game. Otherwise, it'll be a long day in South Florida.

at Virginia (0-3 overall) October 22

Finally, a genuinely easy game for the Heels in conference play. The Cavaliers, under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall, have arguably been the worst team in the entire ACC thus far. Somehow, UVA lost at home to Richmond by 17 points; Richmond would lose two weeks later by 28 points. The quarterback play has been woeful (four interceptions), and they haven’t been able to get any consistency on either side of the ball. While the game may be in Charlottesville, this is as close to a gimme as a team can get in conference play.

vs. Georgia Tech (3-0 overall) November 5

This matchup against the Yellow Jackets should be another home win for the Heels. Yes, Georgia Tech is 3-0 to start the season, but they haven’t beaten a single team that you would consider good (sorry Vanderbilt). The rushing option attack that Tech utilizes has often given UNC problems, but they got a big win in Atlanta last season. Expect that to carry over this year, as North Carolina’s program continues to rise and Georgia Tech’s continues to stagnate.

at Duke (1-2 overall) November 10

Potentially anything could happen in a rivalry game in Durham, but the Blue Devils haven’t looked good at all to start the year. They already have a conference loss to Wake Forest. Duke has struggled to find consistent offense—unless you consider 49 points against NC Central an accomplishment—and the Heels should be able to overwhelm them. Even in Durham, this could very well end up like the 66-31 beatdown from last year.

vs. NC State (2-1 overall) November 25

The final conference game for UNC will come at home against rival NC State. The Wolfpack haven’t shown anything this season to suggest they’re better than last year’s 7-6 record. They easily handled William & Mary and Old Dominion but lost a close game to Eastern Carolina. UNC seems to be above and away the better team for yet another year, and that shouldn’t change when the Heels hopefully close out another successful regular season under Fedora.

The first few weeks of conference play will probably decide UNC’s season. If the Heels can make it through that Miami game relatively unscathed, the schedule looks much kinder. However, if the run defense continues to be a problem, the losses could quickly snowball. Pitt, FSU, and Miami all have the potential to bury the Carolina defense, and three quick ACC losses would put a damper on the rest of the season. On the other hand, if Carolina gets through those three games with two wins, there's a lot to be excited about for the rest of the year.