For the first time since 1997, North Carolina is set to play a regular season game as a top-five team in the AP poll. The opponent then? Florida State. The coach? Mack Brown.
The storylines are swirling as the Tar Heels and Seminoles get set to play in Saturday night's ACC spotlight. The national hype of the game, which is also Mack Brown's first meeting against his alma mater since that 1997 game, has been downgraded as a result of Florida State being far from the powerhouse it once was. But the level of excitement around Chapel Hill for this return to the top of the polls is significant -- even if it's not (yet) shared by Brown.
"Does [the No. 5 ranking] mean anything? No, not really," Brown said Monday. "I've always told the players that until the College Football Playoff polls come out, probably be in November this year, that's the first time I even look at the polls. Because that's when everybody has a resume, we know who's good and who's not. We've got a few teams right now that everybody thinks are 'great' and then the rest of us are a lot alike."
Brown knows that North Carolina has a chance to be really good, but it's not there yet, even admitting that the Tar Heels are a little "ahead of schedule" with this current level of success. The 2020 team is still inexperienced defensively, and against Virginia Tech needed the high-powered offense to have its best game of the season to close out the win and remain undefeated.
While Brown is coaching up the current roster to make sure no one gets complacent with early season adoration, he's also trying to accomplish bigger picture goals for the program. Establishing consistency over time is what Brown hopes to do for North Carolina here in his second stint with the school because he knows this No. 5 ranking can be a flash in the pan if it's followed by a loss. There's a perception that being ranked highly is an anomaly for the program, and in 2020, the Tar Heels aren't to a point yet where they fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.
"Right now when people put up the top five and they see the other four they say 'yeah I got it' and then they see North Carolina and they say 'what are they doing in there, where'd that come from? Come on man, they're not that good,'" Brown said. "We want it to be where they put us in there, we've earned that right.
"And if we don't play well we'll be out fast. Other people drop a little bit if they don't play well. That will not be our case, because I don't think we've earned the right over time. Maybe we are, in the first three weeks, one of the top five teams in the country, but we haven't been over time ... We don't have any lock on No. 5 in the country, we've got to play good."
Week 7 ACC odds, picks
No. 1 Clemson (-27) at Georgia Tech: After starting 0-3 against the number, Clemson covered its first spread of the season against Miami. The key here is not to expect a return to form with another big number against the Yellow Jackets but to recognize the traditional stages of development. Dabo builds his team to peak in November and December, so don't expect any letdown after the big win against the Canes. Pick: Clemson -27
Pitt at No. 13 Miami (-10.5): Things are not going well for the Panthers after a second-straight heartbreaking loss as a betting favorite. The defense that was supposed to anchor their dark-horse status in the ACC has given up seven passing touchdowns with no interceptions in those two games, and now here comes D'Eriq King and a Miami offense hungry to bounce back after failing to hit 20 points at Clemson. The temptation will be to take Pitt on the premise of a Clemson hangover, but the smart play is to back the under. Pick: Under 49.5
Liberty (-3.5) at Syracuse: This line seems like a response to Tommy DeVito being ruled out, potentially for the rest of the season. DeVito's absence certainly hurts the Orange offense because of his year-plus of experience, but I'm not sure it warrants being a home underdog. Syracuse beat Liberty 23-0 in last year's season-opener largely on the back of its defense, and I think that group leads the way to another outright win. Pick: Syracuse +3.5
Louisville at No. 4 Notre Dame (-17): I just can't quit Louisville. The Cards have shown a lot of reasons -- most of them on defense -- to not be trusted on the road against one of the best teams in the conference, but I think this is a large number for the best offense that the Irish have faced all season. Pick: Louisville +17
Duke at NC State (-5): The Blue Devils established a pretty good run game against Syracuse, got some confidence and now have a chance to make things interesting against a surging NC State team in its first game back home. With North Carolina on the horizon for the Pack, I think this is a little bit of a look-ahead spot. I'll take Cutcliffe as a narrow road dog, but still think NC State wins outright. Pick: Duke +5
Virginia (-2.5) at Wake Forest: This is a spot where you have to choose an offense that you trust to come up with late scores in a game that we expect to be close. While Virginia's offense looked lost in the woods in the rain against NC State, the Demon Deacons seemed to have everything clicking when it's not playing Clemson. Pick: Wake Forest +3
No. 5 North Carolina (-13) at Florida State: While Florida State's defense was supposed to be a strength in 2020, the results have been absent. North Carolina's offense should have no trouble putting up 30 or 40 points, and its youth on defense has made it vulnerable to explosive plays. While Jordan Travis is still getting settled as the new starter for the Seminoles, the skill position talent against the inexperience and depth concerns for the Tar Heels defensively have me thinking another high-scoring affair is on the agenda. Pick: Over 64
Boston College at No. 23 Virginia Tech (-11): All three of Virginia Tech's games have gone over the total this year thanks to one of the best rushing attacks in the entire country. With Hendon Hooker in at quarterback, the offense is even more dynamic with a downfield passing element added, so I'm expecting that production to continue after the Hokies outscored North Carolina over the final three quarters of last week's defeat. Boston College needs to help as well, but that's where Phil Jurkovec and Zay Flowers' connection (an ACC-leading 101.3 yards per game and four touchdowns) provides enough explosive plays to take us over the total. Pick: Over 62
Last week: 4-3 | 2020 season: 15-15
Each week, we'll be offering these top-half power rankings for the 15-team, one-division ACC. Results matter, but won't match the standings necessarily as we look to identify the teams that have the best chance to contend for one of the top two spots (by winning percentage) and play for the conference championship in December.
1. Clemson (Last week -- 1): Saturday night's win against Miami only further confirmed the distance between the Tigers and the rest of the conference -- and it might not just be an ACC thing.
2. Miami (2): Still not ready to downgrade the Canes just yet, but that's going to be put the test this weekend in the potential letdown/hangover spot against Pitt.
3. Notre Dame (3): Letting Florida State get frisky early might have caused some to waver in their confidence with the Irish, but I'm willing to chalk it up to the long layoff.
4. North Carolina (5): Maybe the second-best team in the ACC? The next month will test North Carolina's ability to win the games it should win before the schedule concludes with Notre Dame and Miami in back-to-back weeks.
5. Virginia Tech (4): The Hokies have one of the best offenses in the ACC thanks to Khalil Herbert and a nasty offensive line. Virginia Tech fans wonder what took so long for Hooker to get in the game against North Carolina, and now that he's back in rhythm there's not a game on the schedule where the Hokies shouldn't be able to score. Stopping opponents, however, remains worrisome.
6. NC State (8): It wasn't the prettiest win, but NC State should be encouraged by the way its defense stood strong against Virginia to help seal the rainy win in Charlottesville.
7. Boston College (NR): There are few wideouts in the league who can do more damage than Zay Flowers, who diced up the Pitt secondary and continues to shine in the Eagles' 3-1 start to the year.
8. Georgia Tech (NR): It seemed reckless back in early September to suggest that Geoff Collins had the program going in the right direction, but with the true freshman duo Jeff Sims and Jahmyr Gibbs in starring roles, the Yellow Jackets have an explosive offense that's going to cause problems for the next couple years.
Dropped from the rankings: Virginia (6), Louisville (7)