Both football games on the schedule before Saturday seem to have the following theme: conference title contender taking on an opponent that's disappointed to this point in the season. North Carolina (4-3, 0-3 ACC) has been hurt by injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, resulting in the ACC's second-worst offense. But can T.J. Yates and company challenge #13 Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-1) in Blacksburg? That's been among the toughest things to do in the recent history of college football with the Hokies being a dominant team at home on Thursday nights (9-2 at home on ESPN Thursday nights).
Both teams will rely on the run and backs Shaun Draughn (North Carolina) and Ryan Williams (Virginia Tech) are two of the conference's better rushers, but the freshman Williams is one of the favorites right now to win the ACC Offensive Player of the Year award. The Tar Heels rank second in the conference in rush defense, allowing just over 102 yards per game on the ground. This will be a good matchup of "strength vs. strength", with players such as DE Robert Quinn, LB Bruce Carter and the rest of that UNC front seven attempting to shut down the ACC's leading rusher.
Ultimately the key in this meeting will be the ability of Yates and his young corps of receivers to make plays through the air. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will look to take advantage of a shuffled UNC offensive line, likely throwing everything but the kitchen sink in his blitz packages at the Tar Heels. Look for big games from DE Jason Worilds and LB Cody Grimm, who seems to always be around the football, in a low-scoring Hokie victory.
As for Friday night, USF (5-2, 1-2 Big East) said all the right things in the preseason (as well as September) about being able to avoid the seemingly annual October swoon. But saying that you're going to avoid something and actually doing it aren't always bedfellows, something that became painfully apparent in their 41-14 whipping at the hands of Pittsburgh last weekend. While it may not be fair to say that the Bulls' season is on the line when #20 West Virginia (6-1, 2-0) visits Tampa that kind of statement wouldn't be far off.
QB B.J. Daniels has completed just 47.5% of his passes in losses to Cincinnati and Pitt and if the pass isn't working then it becomes tougher to find lanes in the run game. The Mountaineers may provide that opportunity, as they gave up some big plays in the passing game to Connecticut in their last contest. But they do have a streak of eleven consecutive games with an interception, and that experienced secondary can punish Daniels for any wayward throws. Despite ranking seventh in the conference in pass defense West Virginia is third in pass efficiency defense.
When West Virginia has the football it will be even more important for the Bulls to keep contain. Noel Devine is one of the nation's best running backs, and he accounted for 178 yards and a touchdown in the 28-24 win over Connecticut. But QB Jarrett Brown is also a threat on the ground, especially if defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, George Selvie and Craig Marshall get too hellbent on rushing upfield. WR Jock Sanders is also a dangerous option in the passing game and Alric Arnett has been solid as well. It will be interesting to see how safety Nate Allen (12 tackles last week) and the rest of the USF secondary matches up in this area; USF leads the Big East in pass defense.
In regards to who wins this game, all four prior meetings have been decided by no more than eight points with each team winning twice. Is USF of the proper state of mind, or will the Mountaineers add to the misery of losing to all three Big East title contenders in a row? Maybe the Bulls will circle the wagons and come out prepared to play (and win) but the safe pick is West Virginia.