Between the Lines: UNC football at Virginia Tech

Welcome back to my betting column, "Between the Lines," where each week I'll analyze the line for UNC games and tell you which side to trust. Last week, I told you to take Virginia in a dangerously close game. Even The Return of Brandon Harris couldn't save this season. As for this week…

Oct. 21 at 3:30 p.m.: UNC @ Virginia Tech (-20), O/U 52.5

Just how low can it go?

After losing a game that seemed like a certainty two months ago, the North Carolina football team is floundering. The Tar Heels (1-6, 0-4 ACC) haven't won an ACC game this season, and they haven't beat a Power Five team on the road in 364 days. UNC's injury report seems to welcome new members every week, and Larry Fedora's quarterback carousel continues even halfway through the year.

At this rate, the men's basketball team might have more wins by Thanksgiving than the football team. The only difference this week, at No. 14 Virginia Tech, is just how bad it'll get.

The Hokies (5-1, 1-1 ACC) opened as 21-point favorites and hold a three-score edge heading into Saturday's kickoff in Blacksburg, Va. Their only loss this season came to Clemson on Sept. 30, but Virginia Tech comes out of its bye week with a chance to climb into the top 10. Standing in its way is a North Carolina team that can't find its identity in all three phases and is still trending in the wrong direction.

Since beating Old Dominion in their only win of the year, the Tar Heels haven't topped 20 points in four subsequent losses. Chazz Surratt looked bound for greatness after three games, but he's looked like a freshman quarterback as of late. Injuries to Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson, his top two targets, haven't helped. Neither have quarterback changes, injuries across the offensive line and limited play calling.

Virginia Tech's defense might be the worst possible antidote. The Hokes boast the second-best scoring defense (13.7 points per game) in the ACC — trailing only defending champion Clemson — and have allowed 20-plus points just twice this season, both to ranked teams. North Carolina is not a ranked team.

On the other end, the Tar Heels' defense has shown signs of improvement but can't stay consistent. UNC sits second-to-last in the conference in points allowed per game (30.8) and spotted 33 points to both Georgia Tech and Notre Dame before holding Virginia to 20. But this unit has been plagued by the "big play," which is magnified to injuries by playmakers at all three levels. Allowing huge gains and not forcing turnovers is a recipe to an ineffective defense.

That won't work against Josh Jackson, the Hokies' star quarterback and engine of its offense. The freshman tossed 322 yards and a touchdown last week, and he's had just four interceptions this season. Jackson ranks 20th in the nation in passing yards (283.3) and adds 25.7 yards per game on the ground for Virginia Tech's 54th-ranked rushing offense — which could have a field day against the Tar Heels' much-maligned run defense.

UNC's struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks are well documented, but Jackson is the best one North Carolina's faced since that "other" Jackson. That game didn't end so well for the Tar Heels.

Granted, this spread is huge — the largest UNC's seen this season. But the Tar Heels haven't faced a ranked team on the road, and Virginia Tech is the best team North Carolina has played all season. Save for last week's fateful final drive, Fedora's squad hasn't kept it close in nearly a month. Don't expect any difference this week.

PREDICTION: Virginia Tech (-20), UNDER (52.5)

BTL RECORD: 7-0 ATS, 5-2 O/U

Agree/disagree with my picks? Think following my advice is a bad investment (hint: it is) and want to demand a refund? Let me know @CJacksonCowart or in the comments below!

photo by Alex Kormann