Football is a team sport, but individual matchups matter, especially at the college level. With more teams to fill, fewer teams are complete, creating advantages for good coaches to exploit.
There's a lot at stake for both teams here. Miami needs to win out to have any hope of reaching the ACC title game, while NC State needs a win to be bowl eligible, either this week or in their next game against UNC.
These are some of the matchups that could decide the game.
Miami QB Brad Kaaya vs. NC State's secondary
NC State's middling pass defense (84th in passing yards allowed) will struggle to contain Kaaya, but if they can step up it will shift this game. Just don't hold your breath expecting the secondary to stop Kaaya.
Kaaya is seen as a top NFL prospect, as he is a strong college QB. Kaaya ranks 39th in all of FBS in passer rating, and has posted a respectable 2,568 passing yards, 61.5% completion rate, and 19 TDs.
NC State has one hope for stopping Kaaya:
NC State's defensive line vs. Miami's offensive line
Kaaya has been sacked 22 times, 26th most in FBS. It's not on him- the offensive line hasn't been 100%, with injuries and mistakes plaguing them off and on throughout the year. A struggling group like that won't fare well against NC State's NFL-sized line.
The best counter for pressure is a strong run game, which brings up the next question:
Miami RBs Mark Walton and Joe Yearby against the NC State front seven
Miami's biggest flaw is their inability to win against powerhouse teams, and an inability to run against competition is part of the problem. It's not all on the linemen, either- Miami's running backs simply aren't elite. NC State isn't a powerhouse, but their defense is, so these backs need to step up for Miami to have a chance.
Of course, defense may win championships, but aside from the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, it won't get wins on its own.
NC State run game vs. Miami defense
The NC State offense starts with the run, and Miami's run defense hasn't been the greatest. Leading RB Matt Dayes should be fed early and often, pounding the ball through the 'Canes defense and buying time for the defense to rest. A strong run game really is a defense's best friend.
Of course, we all know what an underdog's best friend is, especially in college.
Wolfpack home crowd vs. Miami
A loud crowd can buoy a weaker team to victory, especially in college, where momentum is everything and players don't have time to perfect silent counts like at the NFL level. Miami's struggles against strong defenses aside, NC State is outmatched and will need help to win this game. The hometown crowd could provide that necessary boost.
The Hurricanes are the favorites, but it won't be easy. Expect a close battle that could be shifted by any of these five matchups.