Two games dot the schedule tonight, the traditional Thursday night affair on ESPN and a special mid-week game in the Southland Conference. Let’s get right to it.
North Carolina at Virginia (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Though it may have seemed impossible when the Cavaliers endured their six-game losing streak, Mike London’s team is still in contention for a bowl game. Virginia bookended its half-season slide wth wins over Richmond and Penn State to open the year and defeats of N.C. State and Miami in the last two weeks. A win tonight and next week at Virginia Tech will send the Cavs to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 2004-05. Nevermind that Virginia hasn’t beaten Virginia Tech since 2003, that’s next week’s problem. What does Virginia need to do to beat North Carolina?
A big issue for Mike London’s team has been its disconnect between yards and points. The Cavs have gained the fifth-most yards in the ACC but scored the ninth-most points. Their defense has allowed the third-fewest yards in the conference but allowed the fifth-most points. Underlying that issue has been its problems with turnovers.Virginia possesses and even turnover margin (6-6) in their four wins and stand at a minus-12 (16-4) in their six losses. That minus-12 margin puts them in last place in the ACC and 112th in the nation in turnover margin.
Quarterback Michael Rocco returned to a regular spot in the line-up last week and threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the 41-40 win over Miami. Virginia will need Rocco to remain hot and put pressure on a smarting North Carolina defense fresh off a 68-50 loss to Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels have also struggled away from home this season, winning only once in four tries. Tonight’s game is in Charlottesville.
If nothing else, you should tune in to watch the masterful North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard. The sophomore leads the ACC and ranks eighth nationally with 126 rushing yards per game while simultaneously ranking fourth in the country in punt returns at nearly 18 yards per return. Bernard won the N.C. State game with a 74-yard punt return touchdown with 13 seconds to go to break a 35-35 tie. The combination of Bernard and quarterback Bryn Renner (270 yards per game, 20 touchdowns) will be a handful for Jim Reid’s defense.
A bowl game is out of the picture for Larry Fedora’s group in his first year at the helm, but at 6-4 he can still lead the Tar Heels to their first eight-win regular season since 2009.
Southeastern Louisiana at Nicholls State (7 p.m. ET)
Bragging rights in the River Bell Classic are on the line tonight as Ron Roberts’ first season at the helm of Southeastern Louisiana concludes in Thibodaux, La., against Charlie Stubbs and Nicholls State. At 1-8 overall and 0-6 in the Southland Conference, 2012 has been a trying season for Nicholls State but part of that can be salvaged if the Colonels can extend their home winning streak in the River Bell Classic to six games. The 2010 meeting came down to a late two-point conversion when Nicholls State batted down a Southeastern Louisiana pass to preserve a 27-25 win.
A win tonight for Southeastern Louisiana means the Lions will finish in third place in the Southland in Roberts’ first year. Roberts has impressively put the Lions near the top of the standings despite ranking at the bottom of the Southland Conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Luckily for Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State is seventh among eight teams in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense.