No. 21 Tar Heels meet rival Blue Devils in key ACC matchup
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina sits alone atop the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division, still unbeaten in league play and positioned to make a run at the ACC title game.
A gut-wrenching loss aside, Duke is in much the same position entering Saturday's game.
Both the No. 21 Tar Heels and Blue Devils control their own destiny in the division race entering November, significantly increasing the football stakes in a rivalry best known for basketball.
The Tar Heels (7-1, 4-0 ACC) haven't lost since a head-scratching result in the opener against South Carolina, rolling to the program's first 4-0 ACC start since the Mack Brown era nearly two decades ago.
It's also the program's longest winning streak since winning 10 in a row from 1996-97.
''When you win, every game becomes that much more important,'' UNC coach Larry Fedora said. ''You're in a playoff-type mode when you're winning. They all feel that. They know. They know the stakes.''
The Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1) were unbeaten in the league until last week's loss to Miami on a wild eight-lateral kick return for a touchdown to end the game, a play that the ACC later said should've been overturned. Still, with games against the Tar Heels and then at home against Pittsburgh (4-1 ACC), the Blue Devils are still positioned to win the division race if they can shake off the painful Miami result.
''I think, this has been true my whole life, maybe we have a harder time getting back to work when we win,'' Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. ''We're still wanting to walk on cloud nine at times. If you're a competitor, and the outcome goes differently than a win, then you better (want) to get back on that field and work.
''It's not as hard as you might think, if that's what you do.''
Here are other things to know about Saturday's Duke-UNC game:
SIRK WORKS: Lost in the chaos of the madcap finish was that Duke QB Thomas Sirk once again put up big numbers late. In the fourth quarter against Miami, he threw for 122 yards on 15-for-24 passing while accounting for two touchdowns. A week earlier at Virginia Tech, Sirk threw for two touchdowns in the overtimes and his 2-point rush sealed that 46-44 win.
HOOD MEETS CASH: UNC's Elijah Hood is one of the ACC's top rushers and is fourth in the ACC with 93 yards rushing per game. Duke safety Jeremy Cash leads the ACC with 15 1/2 tackles for loss. Expect plenty of physical collisions.
DUKE ON THE ROAD: The Blue Devils have won 12 of their last 13 road games with the only loss coming at Miami last season. That run includes two upsets of Top 25 teams as an unranked team - at No. 16 Virginia Tech in 2013 and at No. 22 Georgia Tech last year.
ENJOYING SUCCESS: The Tar Heels are flirting with their best season since Brown's farewell for Texas in 1997. Their appearance in this week's Associated Press Top 25 marks the latest they've been ranked in a season since 2009. How will they handle success? ''We had to go out and earn respect,'' quarterback Marquise Williams said of the ranking, ''and we feel like we still need to earn respect.''
SLOWING OPPONENTS: Both teams are playing good defense. The Tar Heels enter this one ranked 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 16th in scoring defense (17 points per game) in a significant one-year turnaround from last year's struggles. The Blue Devils rank in the top 10 nationally for passing defense and total defense while ranking 11th in scoring defense (16.1 points).
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org .