College football previews: UNC looks to clinch 10-win season

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2022

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

CHAPEL HILL — Coach Mack Brown had been clear he didn’t want to talk about various scenarios for his North Carolina team to clinch its Atlantic Coast Conference division title, only winning.

The 13th-ranked Tar Heels have done that and secured a spot in the league championship game. That sets up a new challenge entering Saturday’s home game against Georgia Tech: Focus on the task at hand with so much ahead.

“Everybody will be bragging on our guys, everybody talking about clinching the ACC Coastal (Division), getting ready to go to the championship game, asking about tickets,” Brown said. “Then you’ve got your rival (North Carolina State) next week on Senior Day. And this one’s sitting in here where we better get ready to play.”

The Tar Heels (9-1, 6-0 ACC) clinched the division race with last weekend’s win at Wake Forest, capping the first 6-0 season road record in program history. Now they’re back home for the final two games, the first coming against the Yellow Jackets (4-6, 3-4) before hosting the Wolfpack as they try to reach 10 wins for the first time since 2015.

Brown can also point to the Tar Heels’ lopsided loss at Georgia Tech last year to remind his team of what can happen if they’re not focused on this weekend.

“There won’t be much talk about this game publicly as there will be with the State game and the championship game,” Brown said. “So we have to get our minds ready to go because anybody that watches that film last year — they’ve got good enough players and they absolutely whipped us in every way and outcoached us.”

After rallying from a 27-16 fourth-quarter deficit to win two weeks ago at Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech has had little go right. Its top two quarterbacks are done for the season with injuries following last week’s lopsided loss to Miami, but interim coach Brent Key likes how his team has responded in practice.

Key said nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves.

“Who’s got time to do that?” he said. “We have a chance to play football this weekend. These kids have chance to play football with each other again and not only play football but play a really good dadgum football team at their place. Which, everybody’s excited about.”

MAYE’S HEISMAN RUN?

Second-year UNC passer Drake Maye has been brilliant from the start of the season. It’s now causing a growing buzz about Maye’s potential as a Heisman Trophy candidate, with the program’s official Twitter account posting about it Sunday.

Maye is tied for first in the Bowl Subdivision in touchdown passes (34) with Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and No. 1 in total offense (399.6) while ranking second in passing offense (341.2).

DOWNS’ TEAR

While Maye is rolling, top receiver Josh Downs is on quite a run, too.

Downs is coming off an 11-catch, 154-yard day at Wake Forest that included three first-half touchdowns — with Downs taking time to emphatically count off all three on his fingers after the third scoring grab.

He’s now gone four straight games with 100+ yards receiving and has three straight games with 11+ catches.

JACKETS REELING

Georgia Tech lost its top two quarterbacks in the span of a few days. Jeff Sims, the Yellow Jackets’ starter since 2020, is out indefinitely undergoing medical treatment for an injured foot. Zach Pyron broke his collarbone in the third quarter of last week’s 35-14 home loss to Miami and is out for the rest of the season.

Queue up Zach Gibson, a transfer from Akron who will make his second start since completing two of three passes playing the first series of a 41-16 loss at Florida State three weeks ago. Gibson’s backup will be Taisun Phommachanh, a Clemson transfer who has yet to take a snap this year.

HANGING IN THERE

North Carolina’s defense has been among the nation’s worst statistically all season but has shown a knack for coming up with key plays at the right time, too.

The Tar Heels rank 124th in FBS in total defense (460.9) and 109th in scoring defense (31.3), though the latter is much better (25.8) in ACC play. And in last weekend’s win against Wake Forest and star quarterback Sam Hartman, the defense came up with a fourth-down stop inside its own 10-yard line, a critical interception near midfield to set up the go-ahead field goal and another fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter.

“It’s been a pretty opportunistic defense,” said Gene Chizik, who is in the first year of his second stint overseeing UNC’s defense. “The fourth quarter, we didn’t give up a point. Somehow or another, we were able to close out three straight drives. It wasn’t always pretty, but we’re looking for results.”

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Barring a spectacular crash by both North Carolina and No. 1 Georgia, the Jackets will miss out on a bowl game for the fourth straight year. Key has somewhat stabilized the program with a 3-3 record since Geoff Collins was fired with the worst winning percentage in program history, but considering that he’s likely to finish 3-5, that mark might not be enough to persuade new athletic director J Batt to bring him on full-time.

Georgia Tech (4-6, 3-4 ACC) at No. 13 North Carolina (9-1, 6-0), Saturday, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Line: North Carolina by 21 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Series record: Georgia Tech leads 31-22-3

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The Tar Heels have already clinched the league’s Coastal Division title and a trip to the ACC championship game with last weekend’s win at Wake Forest. But coach Mack Brown has talked about leading a team that still has plenty to prove. Beating a Georgia Tech team that rolled against UNC last year would give the Tar Heels their first 10-win season since 2015. The Yellow Jackets have to win out to reach bowl eligibility, but it would take two stunning upsets for that to happen. After visiting North Carolina, Georgia Tech closes out the season at No. 1 Georgia.

KEY MATCHUP

North Carolina QB Drake Maye against the Georgia Tech secondary. The redshirt freshman has played his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation with an outstanding season, completing 253 of 361 passes for 3,412 yards, 34 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The Jackets’ defense ranks 57th in yards passing per game, 66th in red-zone scoring percentage and 71st in third-down percentage.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Georgia Tech: LBs Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas. The teammates have combined for a remarkable 195 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions in 10 games this season.

North Carolina: RB Elijah Green. The former reserve has risen to the top of the depth chart and is providing needed ground production. He ran 22 times for 91 yards with a touchdown to go with a receiving score against Virginia, then ran 18 times for 66 yards with another score in the Wake Forest win.

FACTS & FIGURES

UNC is trying to complete a perfect run through league regular-season play for the first time since 2015, which is the last time the Tar Heels went to the ACC title game. … UNC receiver Josh Downs has been on a tear of late. He had 11 catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns at Wake Forest. That marked his third straight game with at least 10 catches and fourth straight with 100+ yards receiving. … Brown is 99-64-1 in his 14 seasons, spread over two stints, leading the Tar Heels. … Georgia Tech interim coach Brent Key is 3-3 since taking over after Geoff Collins was fired with the worst winning percentage in school history. … Despite losing the turnover battle for the first time this season in last week’s 35-14 home loss to Miami, the Jackets rank fifth nationally in turnover margin (plus-11).

NC State, Louisville eager to get back into ACC win column

North Carolina visits Louisville with both schools looking to rebound from ACC losses. The Wolfpack are coming off a 21-20 home loss to Boston College after consecutive wins. Louisville’s four-game surge ended with a 31-16 defeat at No. 9 Clemson. Louisville comes in with the ACC’s No. 4 offense at 420.7 yards per game and its No. 2 sack attack with 36. N.C. State has allowed just 20 sacks but has done well protecting freshman MJ Morris since he came off the bench to rally past Virginia Tech and then beat Wake Forest.

 

North Carolina State (7-3, 3-3 ACC) at Louisville (6-4, 3-4), Saturday, 3:30 p.m.  (ACC Network)

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK COLLEGE LINE: Louisville by 31/2.

Series record: Louisville leads 7-4.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

This game is about postseason positioning for two bowl-eligible teams from the league’s Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack suffered an unexpected home loss to Boston College last weekend to knock the team out of the AP Top 25 for the first time this season. Still, Dave Doeren’s team has a chance to post only the second season with double-digit wins in program history. Louisville’s four-game winning streak ended with a 31-16 loss at No. 9 Clemson, but the Cardinals still can achieve its second seven-win season under Scott Satterfield.

KEY MATCHUP

N.C. State’s offensive line vs. Louisville’s pass rush. The Cardinals enter the game with 36 sacks, just one behind ACC leader Pittsburgh, and average 3.6 per contest. Defensive lineman YaYa Diaby ranks fourth with 6.5 sacks. Meanwhile, N.C. State allows just two per game and has protected MJ Morris well enough for the freshman to come off the bench and rally the ‘Pack past Virginia Tech and then upset Wake Forest.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

N.C. State: RB Michael Allen. The first-year running back has stepped up in the past two games to provide some needed production with Demie Sumo-Karngbaye banged up. He had a team-high 77 yards on the ground in the BC loss to go with a 9-yard catch.

Louisville: WR Tyler Hudson. The senior transfer caught 11 passes for a career-high 163 yards at Clemson, his fourth 100-yard game this season. Hudson has 17 receptions for 305 yards the past two contests, and his 866 yards rank second in the ACC. He needs 134 yards to become Louisville’s seventh player with 1,000 yards receiving.

FACTS & FIGURES

N.C. State’s home loss to Boston College came with the program on the verge of claiming a 17th straight home win to set a new program record. … N.C. State won its last trip to Louisville in 2018. … This will be N.C. State’s first game as an unranked team since beating Florida State on the road last November. … Linebacker Momo Sanogo had a career-best 14 tackles at Clemson and has posted 27 the past two games. … Quarterback Malik Cunningham was being evaluated daily for a shoulder injury but is listed as the starter. He needs one touchdown to surpass 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (119) as career leader in TDs accounted for.

 

Syracuse, Wake Forest try to turn around sinking seasons

Syracuse and Wake Forest had fast starts and late struggles this season. Both once had hopes of winning the ACC Atlantic Division. The Orange opened 6-0 but then dropped four straight games. The Demon Deacons had a three-game skid. Each hopes to finish strong and improve their bowl possibilities in the season’s closing stretch. They play each other Saturday in a game that features a matchup of two of the league’s top quarterbacks: Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader and Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman.

Syracuse (6-4, 3-3 ACC) at Wake Forest (6-4, 2-4), Saturday, 8 p.m. ET (ACC Network)

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK COLLEGE LINE: Wake Forest by 10 1/2

Series record: Syracuse leads 6-5.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

This is a matchup of two teams that have gone from strong starts and AP Top 25 rankings to struggling entering the final two weeks of the schedule. The Demon Deacons have lost three straight games since peaking at No. 10 nationally, their first such league skid in a season since 2017. The Orange have lost four straight since starting 6-0 and hitting No. 14 in the AP poll.

KEY MATCHUP

Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader vs. Wake Forest’s defense. Shrader looked rusty in his first game in two weeks in a 38-3 loss to Florida State. But the Demon Deacons are 12th in the 14-team ACC against the pass, allowing more than 252 yards a game through the air.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Syracuse: K Andre Szmyt is closing in on several career ACC scoring and kicking marks. Szmyt has 433 career points for fourth on the league’s all-time list. He’s third among kickers, 33 points away from matching Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins from 2009-12.

Wake Forest: WR Donavon Greene, who had two touchdown grabs in last weekend’s loss to North Carolina, giving him five scores as part of a talented trio of downfield receiving targets.

FACTS & FIGURES

Wake Forest is bowl eligible for the seventh straight year. … Syracuse qualified for the postseason for just the second time in the past nine years. … A.T. Perry leads the Demon Deacons in receiving yards with 774 through 10 games, while Jahmal Banks has a team-high eight touchdown grabs. … Syracuse scored 30 or more points in its first three games this season. The Orange have gone past 24 only once in the seven games since. … Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman has 100 career touchdown passes. That’s second in league history behind only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (107). … Syracuse QB Shrader and RB Sean Tucker have combined for 40 touchdowns when playing together, the fourth-best passer-runner combo in school history. … The Demon Deacons lost 11 turnovers and gave up 12 sacks in losses at Louisville and North Carolina State, but cut that to one sack and one turnover in last weekend’s loss to North Carolina. … Syracuse has lost just 16 turnovers this season.

 Surprising Duke looks to turn the tables on Pittsburgh

Surprising Duke heads to Pittsburgh looking to turn the tables on the Panthers. The Blue Devils are 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC under first-year head coach Mike Elko. Pitt is 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the conference but has won two straight. The Panthers have dominated the series with the Blue Devils, winning 10 of the last 11 meetings.

Duke (7-3, 4-2 ACC) at Pittsburgh (6-4, 3-3), Saturday, noon EST (ACC Network)

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK COLLEGE LINE: Pittsburgh by 7 1/2.

Series record: Pittsburgh leads 16-9.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The Blue Devils keep adding to what has already been a strong debut season for first-year coach Mike Elko. Duke is bowl eligible for the first time since 2018 and can hit eight wins for the first time since 2018 with a road win against the Panthers. The Panthers have won six straight meetings and haven’t lost at home to the Blue Devils in more than five decades.

KEY MATCHUP

Duke’s offensive line vs. Pitt’s front seven. The Panthers have struggled at times against mobile quarterbacks, losing to Tennessee (Hendon Hooker), Louisville (Malik Cunningham) and Georgia Tech (Jeff Sims) because they had trouble keeping the signal callers in the pocket. Duke’s Riley Leonard leads the team in rushing (625 yards). If the Panthers want to extend their mastery over the Blue Devils, they’re going to need to keep Riley in check.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Duke: RB Jaylen Coleman. He missed more than a month due to injury before returning with 50 yards rushing on 13 carries in the Virginia Tech win. He had opened the season with four straight games with a rushing touchdown.

Pittsburgh: DL Calijah Kancey. The redshirt junior is the only player in the country who is a finalist for both the Nagurski and Outland trophies. Kancey is coming off a 3 1/2-sack performance against Virginia. He’s the heart of a defense that has rebounded nicely following a loss to North Carolina last month that effectively ended Pitt’s chances of repeating as ACC champions.

FACTS & FIGURES

Duke’s four ACC wins mark the program’s best regular-season total since going 5-3 in 2014, the year after the Blue Devils won the Coastal Division title. … Duke had lost 21 of 23 league games dating to the 2019 season before this year. … The Blue Devils haven’t beaten the Panthers since a 51-48 double-overtime home win in 2014. Pitt has won 10 of 11 meetings since Duke’s 14-7 win on the road in 1966. … Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is one win shy of tying Pop Warner for second on the school’s all-time victory list. Narduzzi is 59-41 in eight seasons with the Panthers. Warner went 60-12-4 from 1915-23. … The Panthers have 37 sacks on the season tops in the nation. Pitt leads the FBS in sacks since the start of 2019. … Pitt RB Israel Abanikanda leads the ACC in rushing (1,207 yards) and is ninth in the FBS despite missing one game with an undisclosed injury. … Panther QB Kedon Slovis is hoping to build momentum down the stretch. The USC transfer threw his first touchdown pass since early October last week against Virginia.

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