North Carolina-Virginia Tech Preview
(AP) - North Carolina's offense is rolling to big yardage totals and ACC-record scoring outputs.
And there's one telling stat in the No. 12 Tar Heels' rise to their highest ranking in 17 years: three straight games with a ''zero'' in the turnover column.
The Tar Heels are one of two teams nationally with an active streak of three turnover-free games heading into Saturday's trip to Virginia Tech with a shot to clinch a trip to the ACC title game.
Doing so will likely be anything but easy despite the Hokies' .500 record, as emotions should be high with Frank Beamer coaching the final home game of his illustrious career.
''Just take care of the football, that's all we've got to do,'' UNC coach Larry Fedora said Monday. ''If we keep doing that, we'll be really happy at the end of the year, I promise you.''
The numbers certainly back Fedora, whose program is gaining momentum with each week. The Tar Heels can clinch a date with top-ranked Clemson in the conference championship game with a win in either of their final two games or a loss by Pittsburgh in either of its last two.
UNC (9-1, 6-0) hasn't lost since its opener and already has more wins than it's had in any year since Mack Brown left for Texas at the end of the 1997 season. The Tar Heels are 6-0 in the ACC for the first time since last winning the league title in 1980. And they have their highest ranking since opening the 1998 season at No. 12.
UNC is tied for seventh nationally in turnover margin, with three of their nine giveaways coming in the season-opening loss to South Carolina. They've eliminated them completely in the past three games, the program's first such stretch without a turnover since October 1996 during a top-10 season under Brown, according to STATS.
It had happened once previously for Fedora in his four seasons as a head coach, in 2010 at Southern Mississippi. It had never happened for him during his stints as offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Florida and Oklahoma State.
Air Force is the only other team with an active streak of three turnover-free games, according to STATS.
It's no coincidence that the Tar Heels have turned in their most impressive performances of the season during that stretch.
They won at Pitt to hand the Panthers their only league loss, returned home to beat rival Duke 66-31 and then scored the first 45 points in a 59-21 win over Miami last weekend - with the last two games setting an ACC scoring record for consecutive league games. Meanwhile, they've forced seven turnovers during those games to get extra shots for a humming offense.
Marquise Williams certainly understands the importance of keeping the run going. He threw three interceptions - two in the end zone - in the 17-13 loss to the Gamecocks, but has thrown four in nine games since.
''It's just knowing don't force anything - if it's not there, throw it away or take off,'' Williams said. ''The running backs have been protecting the football, both hands on the ball. And receivers, they've been competitive with the ball. If it comes their way, they catch it.
''That's the thing, our motto is just take care of the football: 100 percent ball security.''
Avoiding such momentum-changing plays will be critical in what's sure to be a charged-up atmosphere in Blacksburg. The contest, Senior Day for 26 Hokies, will also be the last time Beamer runs out onto the field for a home game as the coach at his alma mater.
Beamer - with 278 victories, most among active Division I coaches and sixth-most in history - announced earlier this year that he is retiring after what will be his 29th season.
The Hokies (5-5, 3-3) also need one victory to extend their nation-best bowl streak to 23 seasons.
''We all know it's a huge game, not only for Frank but for us,'' senior defensive tackle Luther Maddy said this week. ''It's my last time walking through the tunnel at Lane Stadium, so I know I'm going to have some emotions running through my body. I'm sure all the other seniors will also. I think we're going to play our butts off this game, not only for us but for Coach Beamer and for this team to keep this bowl streak going. It'll be a huge game.''
North Carolina sees it the same way.
''It's going to be emotional for a lot of those fans because he has done so many great things. He built Virginia Tech football,'' Williams said of Beamer. ''And they're going to come out amped up. The guys will come up wanting to get a win for him and send him off on good terms for his last home game.
"We're going to be excited too because we still have people that think we're irrelevant, people (who) think we shouldn't be where we are today. That's fine. We just have to go out and have fun with them, too.''
The Hokies can also secure bowl eligibility next week by winning their regular-season finale against Virginia. Beamer's son Shane, the Hokies' associate head coach and running backs coach, would obviously prefer it happens against North Carolina.
''I can't wait for Saturday,'' he said. ''We need Lane Stadium to be the loudest it's ever been on Saturday. Ever.''
Virginia Tech has won two straight matchups and nine of the last 11.