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Miami at North Carolina

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This week's Thursday night ESPN game features an intriguing ACC game between Miami and North Carolina, two teams that have had polar opposite starts to the season despite both teams being tied for the 2012 ACC Coastal Division title. Due to NCAA infractions, Miami and North Carolina conceded the ACC title game spot to Georgia Tech and it was expected to be a very competitive race again this season, although Virginia Tech has stormed out to a 3-0 start to lead in the early going. Take a look at tonight's key game that will have a big impact on the ACC picture.

Matchup: Miami Hurricanes at North Carolina Tar Heels
Venue: Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (grass)
Date: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Time/TV: 7:30 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Miami -8 ½, Over/Under 63 ½
Last Meeting: 2012 at Miami, North Carolina (-7 ½) 18-14

North Carolina opened the college football season on national television against South Carolina and the Tar Heels were a popular upset pick in that game. It did not work out, but after a solid win over Middle Tennessee State, season goals in the ACC season were still in place. The Tar Heels faced a tough set of three games surrounded by bye weeks that figured to define the season. While sweeping those three games would have been difficult, few expected North Carolina would emerge entering this week at 1-4 on the season with three straight losses, already featuring as many losses as all of last season.

This is the second season for the Tar Heels led by former Southern Mississippi head coach Larry Fedora and while it has been a discouraging start, the schedule the rest of the way is promising and if they can win at home against favored Miami, a 7-0 finish to the season would not be impossible as the Tar Heels will possibly be favored in every remaining game or at worst playing as just a small underdog in one or two games. At this point, that seems unlikely given that the North Carolina defense has allowed 436 yards per game this season and the offense has produced almost 100 fewer yards and more than 14 fewer points per game so far compared with last season's numbers.

Starting quarterback Bryn Renner is one of the more accomplished quarterbacks in the ACC, now in his third season as the starter after passing for over 3,000 yards each of the last two seasons. He was injured in the 55-31 loss to East Carolina and he sat out the most recent loss to Virginia Tech. His numbers are down this season with less than 60 percent completions, but for his career he has 60 touchdowns and just 23 interceptions. The schedule has not been easy with three strong major conference defenses and an East Carolina squad that has looked greatly improved defensively at this point in the season. North Carolina actually out-gained Virginia Tech in the 27-17 loss two weeks ago with back-up quarterback Marquise Williams and this offense still has the potential to be very productive.

While North Carolina has struggled, Miami is one of the few remaining undefeated teams. While the Florida State/Clemson game this week will get all the attention for the ACC, the Hurricanes have quietly climbed into the top 10 in the AP Poll and should be in the top 15 of the BCS rankings when they come out. Miami has home wins over Florida and Georgia Tech, but this will be just the second road game of the season and the schedule will stiffen significantly in November for the Hurricanes, including playing Florida State and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks. While the Hurricanes appear to have all the pieces to put together a great season, there are certainly some doubts for a program that has lost at least five games six of the last seven seasons.

Most suspicious on the resume is the biggest win, a 21-16 win at home over Florida. The Gators had a nearly 2:1 edge in total yardage in the game as Miami rushed for just 50 yards and had just 212 total yards for the game with only 10 first downs. Florida has an excellent defense, but it was not an inspiring performance as the defense also had issues containing a Florida offense that has struggled in most games. Miami only had one drive longer than 50 yards in the game and just three drives longer than four yards, punting nine times in the game and going backwards on five separate possessions. Miami also allowed over 400 yards against Georgia Tech, able to overcome an early deficit with a few big plays. Miami took the lead in the third quarter with a 69-yard pass play and sealed the game with an interception return touchdown as the final 45-30 margin was a bit misleading.

Miami is gaining 7.8 yards per play on offense this season, the seventh-best mark in college football and the Hurricanes are 12th best in yards per play on defense at 4.5 yards per play as the statistics are attractive for Miami in the 5-0 start. Dominant wins over Florida Atlantic, Savannah State, and South Florida skew those numbers however as they had yardage edges of more than 250 yards in each of those wins. This is a showcase opportunity for a couple of deep Heisman Trophy sleepers as quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson have had productive starts and if Miami keeps winning they will get more attention. The Miami defense will start to face more significant tests and after the defense allowed 31 points and 486 yards per game last season, it is not clear that the unit has shown as much improvement as the early season numbers suggest.

As the spread on tonight's game suggests these teams are much closer than the records suggest and the last two meetings have been decided by a total of just 10 points combined. Miami is just 6-6 S/U on the road under Al Golden in two plus seasons, but this is a big opportunity to elevate the program further heading into big national games in the coming weeks. For North Carolina, this is an opportunity to turn the season around with a marquee win and with a favorable late-season schedule, making a run to a bowl spot is certainly still a possibility for a Tar Heels program that just can't seem to get over the hump, stuck in the upper-middle of the ACC.

Last Meeting: Led by two touchdowns from Giovani Bernard, the Tar Heels took a 15-7 lead into halftime last season at Miami in the middle of the season. Miami struck first in the third quarter to get within one and the Tar Heels hit a long field goal to go up 18-14 late in the third quarter. Miami moved into North Carolina territory three times in the fourth quarter, but they opted to punt in the first instance, pinning North Carolina on the one-yard line. Miami failed on two fourth down attempts late in the game as the North Carolina defense held on with a scoreless final quarter.

Series History: These teams have played each of the last nine years with North Carolina holding a 5-4 edge both S/U and ATS, although Miami has covered in three in a row. North Carolina is 3-1 ATS at home in the series and 5-2 ATS as an underdog in the series.

Line Movement: The line opened at -8 and has climbed to -8 ½ at most outlets. The total has climbed from 63 to 63 ½.

Miami Historical Trends: The Hurricanes are 9-2 ATS in road games in the past two-plus seasons under Golden, including going 3-0 as a road favorite and 7-2 overall the last nine games as a road favorite. Miami is just 23-44 ATS as a favorite of seven or more since 2002, including just 4-6 ATS since Golden took over.

North Carolina Historical Trends: The Tar Heels have covered in five of the last six instances as a home underdog going back to late in the 2006 season and going 12-5-1 ATS in that role going back to 2003. North Carolina has not been a home underdog since the 2010 season however. Under Fedora, North Carolina is 5-3-1 ATS at home with just two S/U losses.

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