CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina and Miami started the season as the favorites in their Atlantic Coast Conference division. That hype is long gone as they meet Saturday as two unranked teams with a combined 5-6 record.
The host Tar Heels (3-3, 2-3 ACC) have taken the biggest tumble. With the return of a quarterback Sam Howell, they were the Coastal Division favorite carrying their first top 10 preseason ranking in 24 years during Mack Brown’s first coaching stint in Chapel Hill.
Yet an experienced offensive line hasn’t protected Howell well while the Tar Heels have struggled replacing skill-position losses to the NFL. Brown said this year’s group hasn’t responded as well to adversity as the previous two seasons, most recently in last weekend’s home loss to a one-win Florida State team.
“We should have won more games than we have in my estimation,” Brown said. “So it’s on us (coaches), period. They’ve got to play better, but it’s our job to get them to play better.”
They’re trying to avoid their first 2-4 start since 1997, a season where they were on NCAA probation and dealing with severe scholarship limitations.
They also took a major hit this week when coach Manny Diaz announced this week that quarterback D’Eriq King would have season-ending shoulder surgery for an injury suffered against the Spartans.
Diaz said it’s now Tyler Van Dyke’s team, with Van Dyke starting the past two games for a team now missing two of its top three quarterbacks.
The good news for the Hurricanes, at least? They have only one league loss to remain in the division race.
“Honestly we have to get the job done,” Van Dyke said. “No matter who’s at quarterback, we have to win. Right now, it’s me. I just have to be consistent, go out there and trust my teammates … and we’ll be good.”
Starting with last season’s game against the Tar Heels, Miami has dropped five consecutive games against opponents from the five major conferences — the ACC, the SEC, the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12. It matches the longest such streak for the Hurricanes since a five-game slide against those schools from November 2007 through September 2008.
The last time Miami had a longer losing streak against what would be called Power 5 schools came when the “Power 5” term didn’t even exist; the Hurricanes lost seven in a row against them in the 1977 and 1978 seasons.
The Tar Heels’ protection troubles have been glaring for a team returning its entire offensive line. Injuries, particularly at center, haven’t helped but that doesn’t explain everything.
North Carolina receiver Josh Downs has offered a bright spot in taking over as the top target with the departures of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. He ranks in the top six of the Bowl Subdivision ranks in receiving yards (123.5 per game), catches (8.2) and touchdowns (seven this season).
The Tar Heels turned in an incredible offensive display in last year’s 62-26 road win against the Hurricanes in December. They gained a school-record 778 yards in the game, with 554 on the ground, in the 62-26 win.
“That’s something that’s of course still in the back of my mind as the Mike linebacker of this defense,” linebacker Corey Flagg Jr. said of the rushing total.
UNC also marked its highest scoring output and its largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent.
“We haven’t even talked about last year’s game,” Howell said.
Miami is 15-8 when playing ACC road games in the state of North Carolina since joining the conference in 2004, with wins in five of its last seven games.
But five of those eight losses have come at Chapel Hill, including the 2019 game won by the Tar Heels on Howell’s touchdown throw with 61 seconds left.