UNC-Virginia Countdown to Kickoff: Contender in November

CHAPEL HILL, NC — North Carolina edge defender Chris Collins left Kenan Football Center late one afternoon this week with his television-viewing plans all mapped out for the night ahead.

The first installment of the College Football Playoff rankings would soon be on, and the fifth-year senior Collins, who watches those made-for-TV events every year, was looking forward to seeing UNC’s name revealed among the other top teams in the chase for the postseason — the latest special touch in the rewarding ride thus far this season.

“We talk about this all the time,” Collins said. “To be able to play for something in November is huge. We haven’t had that ability most of these years. So to still be a contender in November, that’s something I’ve been dreaming of. Growing up a college football fan and being able to compete for something in November, that’s huge.”

After putting together a perfect October, a November to remember could be forthcoming for the Tar Heels, who were trying to avoid dropping below .500 at this juncture on the schedule last season.

North Carolina (7-1 overall, 4-0 ACC) arrives at Virginia (3-5, 1-4) for Saturday afternoon’s game at Scott Stadium (noon, ACC Network) ranked No. 17 by both the CFP committee and AP poll voters, and perched in the driver’s seat to secure the league’s Coastal Division title and unlock entry to the ACC championship game.

If things break the Tar Heels’ way across the division this weekend, a victory over longtime nemesis Virginia could provide the Coastal clincher, even with three games remaining beyond Saturday in the regular season. UNC needs Boston College to knock off Duke on Friday night, Florida State to defeat Miami, and Virginia Tech to beat Georgia Tech, in order to be in position to claim the Coastal crown.

Not that UNC coach Mack Brown, he of the ever-present talking points, has turned anything from those scenarios into a message.

“I like this team so much, and I like these kids so much,” Brown said this week. “I have been brutally honest with them. And I’ve told them, we don’t need to talk about this. We still don’t even mention the Coastal. We don’t even mention the conference championship. Those things haven’t been mentioned, because you’ve got to win to get to that point. If you win enough to clinch it, then you can talk about it.”

Saturday marks the 127th football meeting between North Carolina and Virginia, the long-standing series known as the South’s Oldest Rivalry, and only the annual battle between Minnesota and Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s ax has been played more often (131 times) among FBS matchups.

It has loomed as something of a haunted history for the Brown and the Tar Heels against Virginia, particularly on the Cavaliers’ home turf in Charlottesville, Va., where the Hall of Fame coach has never won. He’s 0-6 across his career in road games at Virginia, and 4-9 all-time against the Cavaliers overall. UNC stopped a four-game losing skid in the series with last year’s 59-39 shootout victory in Chapel Hill.

UNC’s last road win at Virginia came in 2016, behind Mitch Trubisky’s three touchdown passes. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 15 nationally in their previous visit to Virginia, which unraveled into a 44-41 loss on Halloween night during the 2020 season, adding to the tormented nature of the disappointment North Carolina has experienced in this rivalry.

Brown said this week that his UNC team’s stunning 20-17 loss at Virginia in 1996 — the Tar Heels were ranked No. 6 then and seemingly on the verge of nailing down a coveted spot in the Bowl Alliance — registers among the most disturbing defeats he has ever digested. The aftertaste still remains unpleasant all these years later. That day, UNC led 17-3 on Dré Bly’s interception return for a touchdown. The Tar Heels were driving in the fourth quarter and poised to score again, before Chris Keldorf was picked off by Virginia’s Antwan Harris, who raced 95 yards on an interception return for a touchdown. That became a fault line in UNC’s impending collapse.

UNC QB Drake Maye, OL William Barnes and RB DJ Jones, right, aim to move the Tar Heels to 5-0 on the road. (Photo: Jim Hawkins / Inside Carolina)

Back to the present, Brown said this week he doesn’t believe in curses, that coaches receive too much credit for wins and too much criticism for losses, and parity has gained such a prominent place in college football team that attempting to connect the dots a team’s performance from week to week can be a futile exercise.

“People talk about curses,” Brown said, “half of this team has never even been to Charlottesville. And we’re talking about one week not carrying over to the next, one year, or the curse from 1996. (These players) weren’t alive then.”

Collins is North Carolina’s new starter at the edge-rushing “jack” position, with Noah Taylor, the graduate transfer from Virginia, out for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury suffered early on in the comeback victory over Pittsburgh last week. Kaimon Rucker figures to become the starter at power end in place of Des Evans, also lost for the season due to injury. But Rucker’s status for Saturday might be in question (upper-body injury) and could put more moving parts in motion for UNC’s defense.

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw for a school-record 554 yards during last season’s loss to the Tar Heels, but he’s averaging just 228.3 passing yards per game this season, one of the many sputtering indicators of the Cavaliers’ struggles under first-year coach Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings. The lefty Armstrong is 101 yards shy of hitting 10,000 yards of total offense for his career.

Virginia’s defense has not allowed a touchdown since the fourth quarter of the Oct. 8 loss to Louisville, a stretch of eight straight quarters combining the Cavaliers’ victory at Georgia Tech and loss to Miami last week — plus the four overtime periods at the end of the game against the Hurricanes. Neither Georgia Tech nor Miami produced 275 total yards against the UVa defense.

UNC has made a habit of living on the edge this season while fashioning a 4-0 record in road games, with wins over Appalachian State, Georgia State, Miami and Duke by a combined margin of 15 total points. Drake Maye’s clutch touchdown pass on the run to Antoine Green, tightroping along the corner of the end zone, lifted the Tar Heels with 16 seconds remaining in the dramatic 38-35 ending at Duke.

“Anytime going into someone’s place and coming out with the win is huge,” Maye said this week. “The guys say, ‘walk in your trap, take over your trap.’ I don’t know if it’s necessarily taking over anybody’s trap, because we’re squeaking in there with some wins. But that’s all that matters, finding a way.”

Maye paused for a moment, recalling how Brown had informed the players that UNC hasn’t had a team improve to 5-0 on the road since 1997.

“Shoot, it’s been what, 25 years since then?” Maye said. “So I think we’ve got a chance to do something pretty cool around here, and we’ve got to come ready. Every Saturday, you see all the upsets and stuff. Especially in the ACC, it’s any given Saturday.”

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