North Carolina (5-2) at Duke (5-2)
Oct. 20, 7:00, ESPNU
Here’s The Deal: Duke. Carolina. And the Victory Bell hanging in the balance as the long-time rivals meet for the 62nd time. The Tar Heels have dominated the series over the last two decades, winning 21 of the last 22 meetings, but this latest edition has a very different feel than any recent ones. Both schools are 5-2, which means the Blue Devils are one victory away from snapping an 18-year postseason dry spell. David Cutcliffe’s kids get a second chance to sew up bowl eligibility after failing to hold an early lead on Virginia Tech last Saturday. Carolina has started to gradually turn the corner for new head coach Larry Fedora, creating a positive vibe in a season marred by an NCAA bowl ban. The Heels copped an excuse-me win at Miami a week ago to extend their winning streak to four games.
Why North Carolina Might Win: The Tar Heels were sloppy against the ‘Canes, but that performance isn’t about to become a trend in Durham. The Blue Devils exposed defensive cracks against Virginia Tech, allowing a sputtering Hokies offense to slap 525 yards and five scores on them. Carolina will further exploit the Duke D by using a balanced offense that operates behind the ACC’s most formidable offensive line. Giovani Bernard is one of the country’s hottest backs, jetting for 439 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games. And when No. 26 is splitting the defense, it creates better looks for QB Bryn Renner and a parity-laden receiving corps. If the Heels play with more efficiency that they did last Saturday, they’re capable of gutting the Blue Devils defense.
Why Duke Might Win: The Blue Devils possess the right parts to exploit the weakest link of the Carolina defense, its secondary. Better opposing quarterbacks, like Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, have moved the ball through the air on the Tar Heels. Senior Sean Renfree will attempt to do the same by getting the ball in the hands of top receivers Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder. Cutcliffe has gotten quality play from both of his quarterbacks, Renfree and Anthony Boone, who have combined for 15 touchdown passes. Duke has been especially crisp at Wallace Wade Stadium, winning all four of its home games.
What To Watch Out For: The Blue Devils have protected Renfree all season … except last weekend, when the Hokies racked up five quarterback sacks. Was it an anomaly or the beginning of a collapse in pass protection? Duke is going to find out in a hurry when it lines up across from DE Kareem Martin, DT Sylvester Williams and LB Kevin Reddick. The Tar Heels have been spitting out the tackles behind the line, a trend that could send the Devils packing if Renfree is unable to set his feet in the pocket.
What Will Happen: With Atlantic Division heavyweights up next, Duke’s postseason margin for error will narrow in a hurry if the team can’t exorcise its Carolina demons this weekend. The Blue Devils are as dangerous in the series as they’ve been in many years, but old habits are hard to break. Plus, the Tar Heels are on a mission to maximize every weekend of a regular season that’ll have no postseason. They’re playing well on both sides of the ball, and have the edge at a number of key units, like the backfield and both lines. Another big game out of Bernard will help build a wedge in a game that’ll be cozy from start to finish.
CFN Prediction: North Carolina 33 … Duke 28