On paper, a 1-4 UNC team on the brink of disaster should be no problem for No. 10 Miami (5-0). The Hurricanes have athletes all over the field on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense where seemingly anyone can take it the distance at any given moment in a game.
UNC’s defense, meanwhile, has been … well, it’s been bad. Particularly the passing defense. The Tar Heels are 94th in the country in total defense, 103rd in pass efficiency defense and 73rd in passing yards allowed. And they’re allowing a whopping 12.7 yards per pass completion.
What’s worse is — as the rankings would indicate — the pass efficiency defense. Opposing quarterbacks are completing nearly 63 percent of their pass attempts for ten touchdowns and just four interceptions.
The Miami passing offense under quarterback Stephen Morris hasn’t been great in terms of sheer numbers per game, but Morris is doing what he needs to, and he had a week off to heal a bum ankle. And he hasn’t had to throw it a lot — he’s averaging 16.4 per completion, after all. That’s fourth-highest in the country.
Miami’s defense is improving, too. Bad news for a sputtering UNC offense. Miami’s opponents haven’t been offensive juggernauts (three of its FBS opponents rank 90th or worse in total offense, and the highest-ranked team is No. 60 Georgia Tech). Miami leads the country in pass defense but is 69th in rush defense. And UNC’s rushing offense has not been good this year.
So on paper, this is a bad matchup for UNC.
But if we know one thing about the UNC-Miami series the last few years, it’s to expect the unexpected.
The two schools went nearly four decades without meeting until 2004, when a No. 4 Miami team came into Kenan Stadium with a 6-0 record and lost 31-28 on a last-second field goal by Conner Barth.
That game also marks the last time UNC has beaten a top-ten team, by the way. Former Miami head coach Butch Davis came to Chapel Hill in 2007, and added an interesting new wrinkle to the rivalry.
When Davis was at Miami, he rebuilt a program that was bogged down with NCAA sanctions. But when he was at UNC — before his program got in some NCAA trouble of its own — he used to beat the Hurricanes routinely.
Davis was 3-1 against Miami as a head coach, with the only loss coming in his final season at UNC. (Two of those wins were vacated by the NCAA for the sake of accuracy, but they happened, so.)
And if we know one thing about Miami over the last few years, it’s that with rankings and increased expectation comes disappointment. The last time Miami hit the top 10 was October 2009 (No. 8). Miami lost its next game to a 3-3 Clemson team in overtime at home. (To be fair, Clemson finished 9-5 that year, got into the AP poll and won six in a row, including that one.)
(Someone might call that “Clemsoning”, but Miami fans would probably term it “Randy Shannoning”. Either way.)
And that pattern would follow until Al Golden got to Coral Gables in 2011. He’s steadily improved Miami each year, and it’s probably unfair to hang the Randy Shannon past on Golden.
But his team is still young, and this series — as noted — has been interesting.
In 2010, a win over UNC brought Miami’s record to 5-2 and up to 22nd in the AP poll. The Hurricanes would lose two straight before falling out of the polls. In 2011, North Carolina was 4-1 while Miami was 2-3, and the Hurricanes went to Chapel Hill and beat the Tar Heels 30-24 in a game that wasn’t as close as that final would indicate.
Then, the oddity that was last year’s game happened.
The Hurricanes started the 2012 season 4-2, with their only losses coming at Kansas State and at Notre Dame. Then the unranked Tar Heels came to town and beat them, 18-14. Two of the best offenses in the league and two of the worst defenses, and it didn’t seem to matter. Points were not scored.
But that game marked the second of what would become a three-game losing streak; Miami would drop to 4-4 before winning three of its final four games.
It hasn’t seemed to matter who the home team is, either. In the last six meetings, UNC is 2-1 in Coral Gables and 1-2 at home.
Thursday night games have been a mixed bag for the Tar Heels, although this is their first home Thursday night game since 2009 (just the second ever at home). In 2009, UNC hosted Florida State, got out to a big lead and then lost it.
The Tar Heels have some of their biggest wins in recent program history on Thursday night (at Rutgers in 2008, a 44-12 drubbing; and at Virginia Tech in 2009).
Miami, on the other hand, is certainly used to the spotlight. The Hurricanes are making their 75th appearance on ESPN on Thursday night and are 16-3 all-time in Thursday night games. The ‘Canes were almost unbeatable on Thursday nights, going 13-1 in its first 14 such games (and winning 11 in a row between 1998-November 13, 2008). Miami has lost two of its last five appearances on Thursday night football, and all three of its losses have come to unranked opponents.
None of those stats really mean anything once the game gets going, however. And the fact remains that Miami has a great shot at winning the Coastal Division. Other than an early-November stretch of at Florida State and Virginia Tech at home, there aren’t really any other challenges remaining.
On paper, anyway.
North Carolina is in a near must-win situation, and by no means should the Hurricanes assume this is a gimme. It’s desperation time for UNC, and teams can be at their most dangerous when they’re desperate.
But if Miami is who it appears to be, they should win.