Entering Week 9 of the college football season, the ACC Coastal Division is upside down. While preseason favorite Georgia Tech sits at the bottom of the division standings one spot below Virginia Tech—which was predicted by the media to finish second in the Coastal—the top three spots are occupied by Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Duke.
Ironically, a Thursday night contest on Nov. 12 between the Yellow Jackets and the Hokies will likely hold little significance beyond potential bowl implications. Instead, it will be another Thursday showdown that could play a major role in determining who will represent the Coastal in this year’s ACC Championship Game.
Pitt will host UNC this Thursday in a matchup between two 6-1 teams with undefeated conference records. The winner will put itself in excellent position to make a run for the division title going into November, while the loser will have little margin for error moving forward.
While neither of the two teams was expected to be a legitimate threat within the Coastal this season, both have been impressive to this point.
Under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi, the only blemish on the Panthers’ record came from a last-second loss to Iowa, now the No. 10 team in the AP Top 25. Within the ACC, Pitt has found itself on the right end of close games, defeating Virginia Tech, 17-13; Virginia, 26-19; Georgia Tech, 17-14; and Syracuse, 23-20, on the way to a 4-0 start in league play.
What’s even more surprising is that Pitt has found success even without reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner, who was lost for the season after suffering a torn MCL in the opener against Youngstown State. Redshirt freshman running back Qadree Ollison has filled in nicely in Conner’s absence, rushing for an average of 94 yards per game through the first seven outings. In addition, Narduzzi made a change at quarterback, naming Nate Peterman the starter under center in Week 3, and the move has paid off.
UNC head coach Larry Fedora has also made adjustments that have led to positive results. After a 2014 campaign that saw the Tar Heels allow an average of 39 points per game, Fedora hired former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator. Since the coaching change, not only has North Carolina improved on that side of the ball, but it has had one of the top defenses in the conference.
The Heels are now sixth in the conference in scoring defense, allowing only 16.7 points per game. Only once this year has the unit given up more than 14 points in a single contest.
The offense has been rolling as well. Sophomore Elijah Hood has been among the top running backs in the league this season, while quarterback Marquise Williams has accounted for more offensive yards than every ACC player but Duke’s Thomas Sirk and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
If UNC scores the win, it will be facing another key divisional matchup in its next game — a Nov. 7 date with the Blue Devils. The Panthers, who have one more conference win than the Tar Heels, will also face Duke in their next ACC contest when they travel to Durham on Nov. 14. Barring a late-season meltdown, the winner on Thursday night will have the Coastal all but locked up if it can emerge victorious over David Cutcliffe’s squad next month.
Just two months ago, neither Pitt nor North Carolina looked like a candidate to reach the ACC title game. When the two square off this week, though, both will have a shot at the league crown on their minds.