November is arriving and Virginia is playing North Carolina for first place in the ACC Coastal Division. It’s perhaps not the scenario most many would have projected but the past few seasons have proven anything can happen in the league’s weaker half.
Jonathan M. Alexander, a Charlotte native, has covered UNC’s football and basketball programs since 2018. Alexander took time out to answer questions about North Carolina going into Saturday's game against Virginia.
1. A 2-0 start, a three-game slide, a one-point loss to Clemson, two-point loss to Virginia Tech and the thrilling rivalry win over Duke – after all that, do you have a good sense of how good this UNC team actually is? How surprising is it that the Heels are playing for first place this weekend?
Alexander: The Tar Heels are good enough to beat any team in the conference, but they can also be beaten by any team in the conference. It's really hard to explain how the Tar Heels almost beat Clemson. It's also hard to explain how they lost to Virginia Tech. I think Mack Brown said it best last Saturday, though. It's not always, 'who is the better team.' Rather it's 'who plays the best that day,' because each team in the Coastal Division is so evenly matched.
I'm not really surprised that UNC is here, based on the wackiness of the Coastal Division in years past. But if you asked me three months ago, whether I expected the Tar Heels would be competing for first place at this point in the season, I probably would have told you 'no.' They've surpassed my expectations and even their coach's expectations.
2. Of North Carolina’s 26 touchdowns so far this season, 22 have come via the pass. Are the Heels interested in balancing their offense, or this pass-heavy approach with Sam Howell as the triggerman working well enough to carry them to a title?
Alexander: I think the Tar Heels would rather be a 'run-first' team. The Tar Heels are 3-0 when they rush for 200 yards or more in a game, including their 205-yard rushing performance against Duke. Their best unit is their running backs. But Phil Longo has said that UNC will take whatever the defense is giving them. So if a team loads the box, like Virginia Tech did in the second half two weeks ago, they'll try to throw it over their heads and may pass it 50 times. If they back off, like Duke did, they'll try to run it 50 times. It depends on how the defense approaches them, and most teams this year, have tried to focus on stopping UNC's running game first, and letting Howell beat them.
3. I saw that North Carolina has sold out every home game this season, including Saturday’s night game against Virginia. How have the fans embraced Mack Brown’s return and this team’s success, and what will the atmosphere be like for this game?
Alexander: This game is sold out, too, so it should be loud, especially with it being a night game. There's a lot more excitement surrounding UNC football this year than in the previous two years because Brown has given fans hope. The Tar Heels are winning this year and beating quality opponents. Recruiting is also going well, which means UNC's football program is building something and fans can see it.