No. 14 Virginia Tech healthy, rested for struggling UNC (Oct 21, 2017)
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech and North Carolina have combined to win five of the past seven ACC Coastal Division titles.
The 14th-ranked Hokies hope to continue that trend. The Tar Heels need a miraculous finish to even become bowl eligible.
The teams square off Saturday afternoon at Lane Stadium.
The Hokies (5-1, 1-1 ACC) are coming off a bye week and will be playing the first of six consecutive games against divisional opponents.
Tech plays North Carolina and Duke at home the next two Saturdays before the schedule, presumably, takes a harder turn with back-to-back road trips to Miami and Georgia Tech.
After losing to defending ACC and national champion Clemson on Sept. 30, the Hokies have little room for error over this final six-game stretch if they want to return to the title game.
"I think anything can happen," said Hokies coach Justin Fuente.
"To me, it's going to be about our ability to grind it out every single week. I don't think there's going to be anybody that's that much better than anybody else. As we go through time, that may be proved different. There may be a team that's quite a bit better than everybody else. I don't know yet.
"But every single week is going to be hard. And we've got to have enough grit and determination to do the little things we can to give ourselves a chance to win."
The Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4) have fared poorly this season, with their only win coming against Old Dominion.
North Carolina has struggled on offense in the wake of the departure of standout quarterback Mitch Trubisky, now the starter for the Chicago Bears. The Heels lost much of their production at running back and wide receiver from last season, too.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora has led his program to its top two offensive seasons in school history during his six seasons in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels are among the worst offenses in the country this year, ranking 98th in yards per game (356.9) and 97th in points per game (23.7).
North Carolina saw a seven-game winning streak over Virginia come to an end Saturday with a 20-14 loss in Chapel Hill.
There were bright spots, like freshman running back Michael Carter rushing for 157 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start, but there were also some not-so-bright ones, like only 46 passing yards, UNC's lowest output since throwing for 42 against Maryland in 2000.
Carter, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound freshman, has 388 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season. He figures to be a focal point of the offense going forward.
"Every rep is valuable for all these young guys," Fedora said. "(Carter is) growing in the offense. He's growing in his understanding of what he needs to do and the speed of it and the intensity of it. He's just coming on. He's growing up before your eyes. He's making plays and I'm proud of him. I really am."
Fedora said he will continue to split quarterback reps in practice between redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt, who has passed for 1,167 yards, with six touchdowns and three interceptions, and grad transfer Brandon Harris, who started against the Cavaliers. Harris has thrown for just one touchdown while being intercepted six times.
The Hokies should have their full complement of offensive playmakers.
Wide receiver Cam Phillips, who is among the nation's best in catches (42), receiving yards (608) and receiving touchdowns (five), is expected back after suffering a right foot sprain in the first quarter of Tech's last game at Boston College on Oct. 7.
Fuente said he also expects starting receiver C.J. Carroll (foot) and running back Steven Peoples (ankle) to return to the lineup. Carroll missed one game. Peoples missed two.
Virginia Tech has won 10 of 13 meetings against UNC since joining the ACC in 2004, but the Hokies are only 2-2 against the Heels in Blacksburg since 2009.
North Carolina took the last meeting at Lane Stadium 30-27 in 2015 in the final home game of former Hokies coach Frank Beamer's career. The Tar Heels won in overtime en route to claiming the Coastal Division championship.
The Tar Heels have found winning those close games much more difficult this year than in seasons past.
"We're just not making enough plays to come out on top," Fedora said. "I think there have been some games where our defense has put us in a position to win a football game and offensively we haven't been able to get it done."