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Game Preview: Miami at UNC

This game being billed as a de facto ACC Coastal championship seems like a lifetime ago, but there are feelings and season outlooks on the line

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight week, UNC will head into a Saturday prepared to host a team from Florida as a fairly heavy favorite in a game that’s going to have a pretty hefty amount of emotional baggage. The stakes are a little bit different, though — last week, UNC was playing to put a stumbling start to the season behind them, and now, after failing spectacularly to do so, they’re in a must-win position to salvage anything good from this season, especially in the one conference game left in which they’re likely to be outright favorites. Miami, meanwhile, has fallen short of expectations maybe even harder than UNC has, though their expectations weren’t as high. An injury to D’Eriq King has just been the latest blow to a Hurricanes team that just can’t seem to get things right, albeit against a tough early schedule. Let’s take a look at what we can expect to see tomorrow afternoon:

When UNC has the ball:

If you know one thing about this Miami team, it is that they are embarrassingly bad at tackling. Pro Football Focus ranks them as the worst-tackling team in the Power Five, and the eye test backs that up. Their linebackers and secondary just don’t really get into opposing players and usually give up a lot of extra yards, which means that getting the ball into space by whatever means necessary is going to be a really dangerous weapon against the Hurricanes. Designed passes to running backs, the tunnel screen that Josh Downs has made lethal throughout the season, power runs off tackle and/or following a tight end, all of these are ways that the Miami defense can best be attacked, especially because they have a reasonably stout pass rush with 10 sacks in 5 games, without blitzing too often - Jahfari Harvey on the defensive line is a player to watch in this one. They also have one of the conference’s best coverage safeties, James Williams, and a decent corner in true freshman Tyrique Stevenson. Testing the Canes deep downfield, rather than forcing them to make plays on the ball, is playing into maybe the only strength on their entire roster. If there’s one thing Sam Howell can do to build this Miami team’s confidence early, it’s go for killshots with receivers who might not have earned a target and waste early drives rather than letting Miami shoot themselves in the foot with easy plays, as they have all season and did especially against UNC in last year’s regular season finale.

When Miami has the ball:

With D’Eriq King undergoing season-ending surgery and backup Jake Garcia having had ankle surgery a little while earlier, the call has been to third-stringer Tyler Van Dyke. Because Miami has an absurd amount of talent on its sideline, Van Dyke isn’t chopped liver; he was a 4-star recruit in the 2020 class and the 7th-ranked “pro-style” quarterback in his class according to the 247 Composite. But he’s also inexperienced and didn’t really impress against Virginia’s mediocre defense; he was 15/29 for 203 yards and a touchdown. He doesn’t have a ton of arm strength and isn’t very mobile at the college level yet, both of which play to UNC’s strengths, where the back end is better making plays in front of it and the front 7 has no idea what to do with running quarterbacks. What you can’t afford to do with a new starting quarterback, especially one with some talent, is give them unearned results — don’t let big plays happen after the catch, don’t bust coverages, and wrap up in the backfield. It’s bad enough when you do that for an entrenched starter, but when you do it for a new quarterback, now they’ve got extra confidence and you don’t have the tape you need to scout their tendencies, stacking the deck even more in their favor. UNC’s defense has been a roller coaster this season, making a few bad quarterbacks look All-ACC caliber but also at times stifling oppositions. Van Dyke isn’t a quarterback who can beat you unless you let him, and he doesn’t really have the receivers to elevate him, either. In the passing game, UNC’s defense just has pay attention to itself to win this matchup.

On the ground, Miami’s got a pretty good back in Cam’Ron Harris, who’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry and a touchdown per game. His game against Virginia was his best yet, even without the option threat of D’Eriq King, where he took 14 carries for 111 yards and 2 scores. Virginia’s run defense also made Ty Chandler look like an all-worlder, so there’s some warranted skepticism, but Harris can hurt a defense. He’s a punishing runner who will take advantage of weak tackle attempts to plow through and gain extra yards. Miami also has Jaylan Knighton back from a 4-game suspension, who’s their change-of-pace back. He averaged only 3 yards per carry against Virginia in his first game back, but poses a threat as a speedy back who can beat you to the edge as he works back to game shape. UNC’s been woeful against option runs this year but pretty solid against straight-up run plays. Now is the time to prove that second part isn’t just a function of not having an option to be fooled by bottling up the Hurricanes’ running game and forcing Van Dyke to be Miami’s key to victory.

Overall/Prediction:

We’ve talked a bit on this site about how UNC is starting to resemble a dysfunctional football environment, between universal regression, weird vibes between players and among coaches, and some whispers about tension regarding younger players’ snaps relative to ability. All those things are happening about tenfold in Coral Gables, if local reporting is to be believed. We’ve heard all season about how Miami has this game circled thanks to last season’s walloping, but this Miami team doesn’t really look like one prepared to take advantage of bulletin-board material. UNC has at least at times looked like they were supposed to, and as dumb as their season has been, I think they have a comfortable advantage in this game. Add Mack Brown’s own (perceived) revenge motive towards Manny Diaz and his ability to pick a team up after a loss, as well as Diaz’ historical badness out of bye weeks, and I think the Heels should probably cover a -7.5 line and have some momentum going into their own week off.

Prediction: UNC 38, Miami 21