Now that a North Carolina team with a six-game winning streak stands with No. 22-ranked Duke and No. 24 Pittsburgh as the last three teams unbeaten in ACC Coastal play, the schedule appears to stack up neatly.
The trio face each other in round-robin fashion over the next three weeks, beginning Thursday night on ESPN when North Carolina (6-1, 3-0 Coastal) and Pittsburgh (6-1, 4-0 Coastal) meet between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers at Heinz Field.
After traveling to Pittsburgh, North Carolina has 10 days off before a home game on Nov. 7 against Duke (6-1, 3-0 Coastal) at Kenan Stadium. Finally, Duke is home on Nov. 14 versus Pitt at Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
All three teams have one showdown at home and one on the road. Nice and neat, right? Well, nothing fits that nicely in college football’s era of parity.
One significant difference on the remaining schedules among the trio is North Carolina’s visit on Nov. 21 to face Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Duke and Pitt already have wins over Virginia Tech in their rearview mirror.
The Hokies are still capable of playing a spoiler role despite slipping to 3-5 overall and 1-3 in conference play, though. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer may be slipping at age 69, but he is still capable of rallying his underachieving team to compete up to its history. Maybe he can no longer do it for 12 Saturdays, but he’s been around long enough to rally his team on one particular Saturday.
In football, it’s often when and where you play a team that determines the outcome. That is especially true now in this era of college football parity.
Something else the Coastal trio share is the teams are riding wins streaks. North Carolina’s streak has gained 47 votes to equal No. 27 in the AP poll. Pitt and Duke have both won four straight to crack the Top 25 and climb.
The Tar Heels’ six-game streak is their longest since 1997. The overall and conference records are also high-water marks since that same 1997 season of 11-1 and 7-1 that landed Mack Brown his job at Texas for the next 16 years.
North Carolina’s six-game streak is a modest one, though, when considered it is against two lower level Football Championship Subdivision schools and four Football Bowl Subdivision teams with a combined record of 12-18. The wins were over the Big Ten’s Illinois (4-3), Georgia Tech (3-5, 1-4 Coastal), Wake Forest (3-5, 1-4 Atlantic) and Virginia (2-5, 1-2 Coastal).
But the encouraging signs for the Tar Heels are gaining momentum behind the improved consistency of quarterback Marquise Williams, better play-calling that is getting the ball in the hands of running back Elijah Hood in the red zone and a defense competing strongly in the second half.
In last week’s 26-13 win at home over Virginia, the game was tied 13-13 at halftime until the Tar Heels controlled the second half with a 10-0 margin.
Williams combined for 297 total yards with 12 carries for 71 yards and 21-of-26 passing for 221 yards, although he threw an interception without a touchdown. But, he directed a 13-play, 93-yard drive that Hood finished with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 23-13 lead early in the fourth quarter. Hood’s first touchdown run was also a 3-yarder to finish an eight-play, 80-yard drive for a 13-10 lead midway through the second quarter. In the season-opening 17-13 loss to South Carolina, the Tar Heels paid for not giving the ball to Hood in the red zone while Williams threw two end zone interceptions. That wasn’t the case against the Cavaliers.
Defensively, the Virginia game was the unit’s second straight second-half shutout under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizak, former Auburn head coach. North Carolina is only allowing 6.4 points a game in the second half for the season. The Tar Heels forced a season-high five turnovers against Virginia.
The improved play and winning streaks has brought us to the upcoming round-robin series and the subsequent games until the final weekend on Nov. 28.
One advantage Pitt holds is the Panthers already have four wins in conference play. Pitt has a non-conference home game remaining on Nov. 7 against Notre Dame that can help the Panthers in the rankings but not hurt in the Coastal standings.
Below are the head-to-head games:
— North Carolina: Nov. 14, Miami; Nov. 21 at Virginia Tech; and Nov. 28 at North Carolina State.
— Duke: Nov. 21, at Virginia and Nov. 28, at Wake Forest.
— Pittsburgh: Nov. 21, Louisville and Nov. 28, Miami.
Circle that Nov. 21 game in Blacksburg. Despite North Carolina’s hot play as of late, the Hokies still have the ability to play spoiler.