MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — Miami coach Al Golden tends to call the Atlantic Coast Conference portion of the schedule "the tournament."
And the elimination rounds might have arrived.
The ACC's Coastal Division standings are a muddled mess. Miami and North Carolina are squarely in the middle of it all, both starting this weekend one game in the loss column out of first place, one game in the loss column out of last — and knowing that what happens in their game Saturday will probably either lift or doom their respective title hopes.
"It's really one game at a time," Golden said. "North Carolina is the most important game because it's the next one. They are playing really well right now, scoring a lot of points, just came off their best defensive effort. That's it. That's our focus. We can't worry about anything else."
Miami (5-3, 2-2) and North Carolina (4-4, 2-2) start the weekend a half-game behind Duke in the Coastal. But with only three league games left after this weekend — and in Miami's case, one of those against Florida State — there's no room for slippage now.
"I think Miami is probably playing the best ball they've played all year," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.
North Carolina has been enigmatic. The Tar Heels lost four straight before now posting back-to-back wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia, all the while continuing a year filled with defensive struggles.
Now comes the challenge of facing Miami running back Duke Johnson, who is on pace to become the Hurricanes' all-time leading rusher in just his third season and after missing the second half of 2013 with a broken ankle.
Johnson ran for 249 yards in last week's win over Virginia Tech.
"Duke is very, very special," Fedora said. "The only way you're going to stop Duke or to slow Duke down is you got to get a lot of hats to the ball. Duke can make you miss. If it's one guy out in open space, it's going to be very, very difficult."
Here's some of the things to watch when North Carolina visits Miami:
THE SERIES: Miami is a two-touchdown favorite, though recent history suggests this one could go down to the wire. Each of the last three Carolina-Miami meetings — a 30-24 Miami win in 2011, an 18-14 North Carolina win in 2012 and the Hurricanes' 27-23 comeback victory last year — has been decided in the final minute.
QB MATCHUP: North Carolina's Marquise Williams throws for 254 yards per game, with 17 touchdowns and a 63 percent completion rate this season. Miami's Brad Kaaya throws for 237 yards per game, also with 17 touchdowns and a 62 percent completion rate. And both have gotten better as the year has progressed.
CAROLINA'S 'D': A year ago, the Tar Heels gave up 318 points in 13 games. This year, they've allowed 330 points already. Virginia scored 27 against North Carolina last week, and that actually matched the Tar Heels' stingiest defensive performance this season. In a four-game span earlier this year, North Carolina scored 136 points and went 0-4, giving up an average of a whopping 51.5 points per game in that stretch.
TIME OF POSSESSION: This has been an issue for Miami in recent years, with the combination of a quick-strike offense and defensive inabilities to get off the field on third downs leading to the Hurricanes losing many time-of-possession battles. But the Tar Heels haven't won that stat in a road ACC contest since 2010, with opponents holding the ball for an average of 34 minutes over that span of 14 games.
BOWL ELIGIBILITY: With a win, Miami would assure itself of bowl eligibility. The Hurricanes haven't won a postseason game since the end of the 2006 season, going 0-4 in bowls since.