The Virginia Tech Hokies returned to the top 25 this week for the first time since September of 2014 at #25 and will face off against the #17 North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in what is the Hokies’ first game against a ranked opponent as a ranked team since the Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan after the 2011 season.
For both teams, a loss in this game would hurt either team’s chances of winning the ACC Coastal and eliminate any long shot hopes of making a run at the College Football Playoff. For the winner, a significant jump in the top 25 would be next ahead of an upcoming showdown with Miami (UNC faces Miami next week, VT faces Miami the Thursday after that).
There is no doubt that this is a big game for both teams along with being one of the biggest games in recent memory in Chapel Hill. With that said, here are the key matchups for this big ACC Coastal matchup.
WR Isaiah Ford vs. CB MJ Stewart
This is a matchup that will draw plenty of attention as Isaiah Ford is one of the best receivers in the country while MJ Stewart is a talented cornerback who likely has a NFL future of some sorts. Both of these players know that this game, even in what will be rainy conditions, will be a great chance for both players to make a strong impression on NFL scouts along with make a big difference on the outcome.
Ford has been a star this season with 24 catches for 376 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns though a few inaccurate deep balls have kept those numbers from being even bigger. Meanwhile, Stewart has been quite good this season with 29 tackles and 4 pass breakups while being North Carolina’s best defensive player.
While UNC likely will give Stewart some safety help, they will likely look to Stewart to try to contain Ford one-on-one even as other cornerbacks have struggled including Tennessee’s Cam Sutton at times in the Battle at Bristol. Ford has proven to be up to the challenge time and time again, and he’ll be ready for Stewart in this matchup.
This matchup could have a big impact on how effective Virginia Tech’s offense is against a North Carolina defense that has had its fair share of struggles.
DB Mook Reynolds vs. WR Ryan Switzer
This matchup may have the biggest impact on this game as North Carolina’s star slot receiver Ryan Switzer faces one of America’s best nickel cornerbacks in Mook Reynolds. Switzer is already only 15 receptions away from having a career-high as the senior has 47 catches for 587 yards and 2 touchdowns in five games so far while Reynolds has been quite solid in man coverage with 1 interception and 2 pass breakups in addition to 13 tackles.
Reynolds’s numbers might not be the biggest but when watching the North Carolina native in-person, it’s clear that Reynolds has been dominant in man coverage. However, Switzer not only may be the fastest player that Reynolds has faced in the slot but is also definitely the most talented opponent that can do it all from get separation on a quick pass to going over the middle to find space and make plays to blowing the top off the defense.
While North Carolina also has two talented outside receivers in Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, Switzer has been the guy that Mitch Trubisky has relied on a lot and the junior QB will likely look a lot for his senior slot receiver again. Reynolds likely knows that if he can find a way to slow down Switzer as Florida State and Pittsburgh have failed to, the Hokies will be in great shape to win.
If Switzer has a big game, it will be a tough day for the Hokies but if Reynolds can have another strong game, UNC’s offense will be slowed down some.
The Quarterbacks vs. The Weather
Okay, this may be a stretch here but the forecast in Chapel Hill is heavy rain all day with Weather Channel estimates putting it at around 2-3 inches of rain just during the day on Saturday. That will mean that both quarterbacks are going to have to deal with the effects of rain and moderate wind effects that will undoubtedly make this game a lot harder for arguably the best two quarterbacks in America that few know about.
Earlier this week, Jerod Evans and Justin Fuente both mentioned how the Hokies have been drenching footballs in water to get Evans ready for Saturday while Larry Fedora and Mitch Trubisky has likely been doing the same thing this week. However, it is still a lot different when you’re having to deal with heavy rain while throwing a ball that could be a lot slicker and harder to throw.
This additional weather factor usually leads to a low-scoring game but quarterbacks are very talented playmakers that will likely not be shut down by the weather. However, the weather may be an advantage for Evans who is the more mobile of the two quarterbacks which may be quite important on a day where throwing the football is going to be a bigger challenge than normal.
Whoever can handle the weather will likely be in better position to come out on top of this big top 25 clash in what will be a very wet Kenan Memorial Stadium.