North Carolina's Meteoric Rise In The ACC

Last week, I said that Duke needed to win out in order to gain back first place in the Coastal, but North Carolina clearly had other plans. After a blowout win over the Blue Devils, UNC is now in complete control of the Coastal at 8-1. Pittsburgh is miles behind in second at 6-3. North Carolina was predicted to finish in 5th place in the Coastal, and ESPN’s David Hale had them at 10th on his preseason power rankings. So, just how did we get to this point?

North Carolina actually started off this season with a pretty bad close loss against South Carolina. Marquise Williams threw three interceptions, and the offensive just couldn’t put points on the board. A late touchdown sealed it for the Gamecocks. It looked like the Tar Heels were destined to meet their expectations of 5th in the Coastal, or maybe worse. 

Over the next three weeks, North Carolina played three non conference teams in North Carolina A&T, Illinois, and Delaware. None of these teams is considered particularly good, but UNC racked up huge victories, scoring 142 combined points in the process. Marquise Williams didn’t see a lot of playing time in those three games, but he made the most of his opportunities, throwing 5 touchdowns and rushing for 2 more. He started looking more and more like the athletic dual threat quarterback he was last year. 

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Sitting at 3-1, UNC began their ACC schedule with an away game at 2-2 (and falling fast) Georgia Tech. They forced 2 turnovers, Williams rushed for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns, Elijah Hood added 2 more rushing touchdowns, and UNC overcame a 21 point deficit to win. This game was huge for the Tar Heels. Georgia Tech was playing better than their record indicated, and many people still considered them to be a good team. UNC showed that they could overcome adversity against a solid team, and left Atlanta with a ton of confidence. 

After a blowout win over lowly Wake Forest and a solid victory over Virginia, UNC won another tough road game 26-19 against #23 Pittsburgh. It would be their seventh game of the year holding an opponent under 20 points, a surprising stat considering their defense was very underwhelming last season. The defense was playing well, and Marquise Williams was giving them consistent results in both the passing and rushing game. Elijah hood was also emerging as a very solid running back. UNC finished the week ranked at #21 in the AP Poll.

Heading into a heated game with rivals Duke, most people expected a tightly contested battle between two good teams. Instead, they got a UNC offensive onslaught. The Tar Heels put up 66 points on an elite Duke defensive, by far the most they've conceded all season. Williams threw for 494 yards (a school record) and four touchdowns while adding one rushing score, and Hood ran in three scores himself. They were firing on all cylinders, racking up 704 yards and forcing 3 turnovers. It was a complete domination of the Blue Devils. UNC moved up to #17 in the AP Poll after the victory. 

At this point in the season, a much-improved defense has been the key to UNC’s success. This is in stark contrast to a year ago when their electric offense had to score 35+ points per game to win in spite of a disappointing defense. Now UNC is only conceding 18.55 points per game, good for 22nd in the country. As stated above, they’ve only allowed two opponents to go over 20 points in a game. By doing this, they are giving the offense a chance to relax. Last year, Williams needed to play like a maniac to get his team to score enough points to stay in the game. This year, he can take on more of a game-managing role and let the opportunities come to him instead of the other way around. 

Moving forward, there is no reason North Carolina can’t go 3-0 to finish the season. Their remaining opponents are Miami, Virginia Tech, and NC State. ESPN FPI has them favored in each of those matchups. Making it a little tougher, they must go on the road agains VT and NC State. If UNC can finish the regular season at 11-1, they should be a top-15 team. They were left out of the initial Playoff Rankings, but they should start gaining more respect each week. 

Either way, barring any crazy turn of events, North Carolina will play Clemson for the ACC Championship next month. While Clemson is a great team, North Carolina will absolutely have the chance at an upset. They’ve grown to become a mature team that can win tough games, and a game against Clemson would be just that. 

If Deshaun Watson has a bad game, and Marquise Williams plays well, put Clemson on upset alert. Hypothetically, it would be a interesting situation if North Carolina were to pull off the upset. They could be 11-1, have a win against the #1 team in the country, and be a conference champion. If more top teams continue to falter, consider North Carolina a dark horse to make the Playoff.

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