UNC, Miami to battle for ACC bronze medal

A possible Orange Bowl berth awaits the winner

Quarterback Sam Howell and the 20th-ranked Tar Heels could be playing for an Orange Bowl berth in their regular season finale this weekend at No. 9 Miami. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Third time’s the charm?

UNC will get another chance to make a statement against one of the nation’s top teams when it travels to Miami on Saturday for the regular season finale.

At stake is the third slot in the ACC bowl pecking order. With Clemson and Notre Dame headed for the ACC Championship Game — and possible berths in the College Football Playoff — the next-best team could be in position to receive a bid to the Orange Bowl, a prestigious postseason showcase as well as a big payday.

Carolina gave then-top ranked Clemson all it could handle last season, losing by one point after a potential game-winning two-point conversion with seconds left wasn’t converted.

This season, the Tar Heels had a shot at No. 2 Notre Dame.

“We had a good game on defense and a good half on offense,” said UNC coach Mack Brown of the 31-17 loss to the Irish. “We still haven’t put our best complete game together.”

That game, nationally televised the day after Thanksgiving, showed that the Tar Heels weren’t quite ready for the top tier, according to Brown and the other members of the coaching staff.

Now, two weeks later, Carolina has a shot at another top-10 team, as well as another showcase game on ABC in the 3:30 p.m. time slot.

“It’s another opportunity for us,” Brown said. “It’s unique that we’ll play two top-10 teams in the last three games. It’s another opportunity to see how we measure up against the top teams in the country.”

The game matches two of the best offenses in the conference. Carolina’s 534.5 yards per game sits atop the ACC by more than 30 yards. Quarterback Sam Howell leads the league in passing and total offense, while running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are both in the top five in rushing.

Carolina is also second in scoring at 41.1 points per game.

Miami is fifth in both offensive categories, gaining 445.8 yards and scoring 34.9 points per outing. The Canes are triggered by quarterback D’Eriq King, a grad transfer from Houston.

“He’s one of the best in the country,” Brown said. “He has 10,000 yards in his career in total offense. D’Eriq is a tremendous player and outstanding leader as well.”

King has sparked the Hurricanes’ offense, ranking fourth in passing and third in total offense in the ACC. He’s also the Canes’ second-leading rusher, behind Cam’Ron Harris.

King has plenty of targets available for passes, led by Michael Harley, who has 43 catches for 653 yards and five touchdowns.

“He’s one of the best receivers we’ll face,” Brown said. “He’s tall and can really fly. He’s good in space with the ball.”

As Brown also pointed out, Miami has perhaps the best tight end combination in the country in Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory, who have combined for 40 catches, 590 yards and eight scores.

The script is flipped on the other side of the ball. Like on offense, both teams are among the ACC’s best defenses, but the Hurricanes are the more explosive team.

Miami is ranked third in scoring defense and fourth in yardage, with UNC seventh and sixth, respectively.

The Canes have a fierce pass rush, led by ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche. Phillips has 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Roche, a grad transfer from Temple, also has 14 TFL.

“We tried to recruit him,” Brown admitted of Roche.

As Team Turnover Chain, Miami is also third in the ACC in turnover margin and coming off five takeaways against Duke last week.

Miami is also coming off of a battle with COVID-19 that has scrambled its schedule. This will be the Canes’ first game at home in seven weeks, since a week before Halloween. King reportedly had it and recovered ahead of the Duke game, and the Canes had their fewest players available this season for their visit to Durham.

The Canes don’t release information about whether players missed a game due to injury or COVID issues, but among the starters who missed the Duke game were cornerback Al Blades Jr., defensive tackles Jon Ford and Jared Harrison-Hunte, and linebackers Sam Brooks Jr. and Zach McCloud.

The Hurricanes were also without two running backs and two backup quarterbacks. Reportedly, a total of 15 Miami players were held out due to testing and contact tracing. Presumably, some, if not all of them will be back for the Carolina game.

The Canes and Heels put on a show last year at Kenan, with UNC jumping out to a quick lead then having to score late to come back and win after Miami rallied.

“They’re a much better team than they were last year,” Brown cautioned.

For the second time in three weeks, his Tar Heels will get the chance to show they are too.