by Jacob Swiger
UNC (3-1) vs. Virginia (0-3)
[12 p.m., Oct. 3, Kenan Memorial Stadium]
The South's oldest rivals meet again Saturday in Chapel Hill -- the 114th meeting between the two prestigious public schools. Thomas Jefferson will take on Michael Jordan ... oh we can dream.
Last year, Virginia continued its winning streak in Charlottesville, dating back to 1981. UVa won 16-13 in overtime and mounted a comeback late in the fourth quarter to upset No. 18-ranked UNC. The Tar Heels struggled to recover from the loss and ended up losing three out of its six remaining contests.
Key stats: Although the records are nearly opposite, UNC and UVa both are strikingly similar teams.
Through its first three games in 2009, Virginia has turned the ball over an awful 10 times. That's a slanted statistic, though, with seven of those coming in the season opener against William and Mary. But UNC has also turned the ball over 10 times.
During the offseason, UVa coach Al Groh brought in offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon to switch the Cavaliers to a spread offense -- resulting in a tumultuous beginning to the season. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 111 in total offensive yards gained, and only 10 teams have been worse on offense.
Don't let the talk fool you, though. UNC's offense isn't much better than the Cavaliers. Virginia averages just over 278 yards per game while UNC tallied nearly 308 yards on average through its first four games. The Heels are ranked 106th in total offense.
Defense is the only apparent difference between the teams. UNC's defense --ranked No. 14 in fewest yards allowed -- is ready to make up for the Georgia Tech game in which the Heels allowed 406 yards.
On the other hand, Virginia is ranked No. 58 in yards allowed, which is above average.
Best message board tidbit on the game: Oh I'm cruel to prey on innocent message board posters but sometimes they are just asking for trouble. This is obviously an optimistic UNC fan who predicts the Heels will win out and reach the Orange Bowl.
That and radical health care reform have about the same chance of happening this year.
Fortunately, a voice of reason put out this prediction for the season in response.
UNC will win if ... The defense recovers its swagger. The spread/triple option offense that Georgia Tech runs can give great defenses fits as we saw Navy do to Ohio State earlier in the season. UNC's linebackers are due for a breakout performance after a quiet start to the season, and there is nothing better for a stingy defense than to face a struggling offense.
If the defense plays well and T.J. Yates manages not to throw one or two careless interceptions, the Heels will beat Virginia for the first time since the 7-5 shootout from 2005.
Virginia will win if ... The bye week allowed senior quarterback Jameel Sewell to get a hold of the spread offense. The Yellow Jackets used a lot of misdirection and trickery to take advantage of UNC's speed on defense, and it would be foolish not to expect a few wrinkles designed for big plays.
Sewell, like Yates, has struggled with interceptions, throwing five in his first three games. If Sewell can help put 21 points on the board -- UVa's average so far -- UNC's offense might not be able to keep up.
What people are saying about the game: ESPN's Heather Dinich, who I admire when it comes to picking games, has the guts to pick the winless Cavaliers in this one: "Virginia 14, UNC 13 -- It’s time. The Cavaliers are due, and they’ve had more than a week to prepare. UNC is coming off a tough loss to Georgia Tech and won’t know what to expect from Al Groh and his offensive staff this week."
Groh on whether he suggested changes to the offensive coordinator after losing the first three games: "Does your wife make suggestions to you or do you collaborate on those things?"
Vegas line (4-0): UNC (-16)
My prediction (4-0): UNC's offense will look more ECU than Georgia Tech Saturday. Playing at home and with less pressure to keep up with a tough offense, the Heels should be able to run the ball efficiently and put up a decent number of points.
But Virginia will keep things interesting. A bye week is worth at least a touchdown in my mind, and like Dinich I realize the Cavaliers are going to win at some point. Playing in Chapel Hill against an angry defense will be too tough to overcome.
UNC 20, UVa 13
NCAA Football 10 simulation score (3-1): UNC 34, UVa 31
UNC key performance: Junior defensive back Charles Brown, one interception, 87 punt return yards for a touchdown
UVa key performance: Running back Mikell Simpson, 13 carries, 75 yards, three touchdowns