Turning point: Duke, UNC face crossroads in rivalry game

Both teams have surprised — in different ways — in the season’s first month

UNC held onto the Victory Bell last season, but the Tar Heels' 2021 campaign has not gone as planned while the rival Blue Devils are off to a surprising 3-1 start. (Jim Dedmon / AP Photo)

Going into the season, North Carolina was considered the favorite to win the Coastal Division. Voted to the top spot by the media and ranked No. 10 in the nation, the Tar Heels had a quarterback who was a Heisman contender and elite talent on both sides of the ball.

Duke was an afterthought, chosen by the media to finish at the bottom of the division.

Four weeks later, so much has changed.

The Tar Heels lost their opener at Virginia Tech and then lost at Georgia Tech in Week 4 to fall to 2-2 on the year, including 1-2 in the ACC. They got a total of one vote in the most recent AP poll, and coach Mack Brown talked about having to adjust their short-term goals for this season due to the poor start.

Duke, meanwhile, is riding a three-game winning streak, having gone 3-1 against nonconference opponents. The Blue Devils became the first ACC team this season — and possibly the only one — to defeat two Power Five teams in their nonconference schedule.

So much has changed, or maybe nothing has.

“Well, what people thought (in the preseason) really is of no importance. It’s unimportant,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, pointing out that the Tar Heels have already played three ACC opponents, two on the road, while Duke is preparing for its conference opener this week at North Carolina.

“I’m looking at the film,” Cutcliffe continued. “I’m looking at an extremely talented, gifted North Carolina team that is really well-coached and plays hard, and they’re a handful regardless for anybody. We just got to hope that we can play as well as we can play against a team like this. They deserved all the recognition that they had coming in because they are an extremely talented football team with a great player at quarterback, a proven great quarterback. You could go down a long list of guys like that. So yeah, it’s a big challenge for us.”

UNC’s coaches also don’t have time to reflect on whether the preseason predictions were accurate or if the schedules have been comparable. They’re too busy trying to figure out what’s been going wrong and trying to get it fixed.

Among the key problems is an offensive line that has allowed quarterback Sam Howell to get sacked 14 times this year, many of which led to fumbles, and a defense that has missed tackles and allowed too many yards on the ground. The latter is a particularly galling problem as the Tar Heels prepare to face Duke running back Mataeo Durant, who has set the school’s single-game rushing record this year, and mobile quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who tied the school’s mark for rushing touchdowns.

“Offensively, there was penetration in the run game, too many lost yards. Too many sacks, too many turnovers,” coach Mack Brown said. “And we gave turnovers on Georgia Tech’s end and put entirely too much pressure on our defense. … I’ve never, in my coaching career, I’ve never seen the ball given to a team on their side of the field that many times. First time in 47 years that I’ve seen that happen.”

On the one hand, there’s nothing better to help a team get well than a win over its archrival. On the other, no opponent would relish the opportunity to prolong Carolina’s tailspin more than the Blue Devils.

Duke would also like to bring the Victory Bell back to Durham for the first time since 2018.

“We have a perfect place down there, right by our locker room,” Cutcliffe said of where the team stores the bell when they’ve earned it. “I’ve enjoyed that when we’ve had it. It’s got a home and it’s well in sight. It’s right by our training room, between our training room and our locker room. When that space is empty, it’s very noticeable.”

Motivating the team for the Victory Bell game is one thing neither coaching staff needs to devote time to this week, however.

“I didn’t have to bring it up,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve already brought it up. They’re well aware. We’ve got older guys in our program that have rung it, and it’s a big difference. And yeah, it’s important. It’s an important part of the process.”

It’s an intriguing matchup that comes earlier in the season than usual — with both teams at a crossroads. North Carolina needs to right the ship and get a promising season back on track, while an unproven Duke team prepares to move to another level of difficulty.

As we prepare for this week’s annual showdown between the two rivals, the first month of the season has taught us one thing — don’t trust what we think we know.