A popular question asked of Virginia Tech’s football team this week was whether it would almost prefer that next week’s rivalry game at Virginia decide the ACC’s Coastal Division. Because if the Hokies lose to North Carolina on Thursday night or the Cavaliers win on Saturday against Florida State, the battle for the Commonwealth Cup will become a division championship game.

This reporter would certainly enjoy having high stakes in next week’s game, but Virginia Tech has shot down that theory, and as Coach Frank Beamer said, “I think regardless of how it comes out this weekend, the U-Va.-Virginia Tech game is going to mean something.”

Instead, Beamer has reminded his Hokies how similar the circumstances are now compared to two years ago when North Carolina came into Lane Stadium on a Thursday night and beat Virginia Tech, 20-17, on a last-second field goal, the Hokies’ second loss in as many weeks.

The Tar Heels entered that game trying to recover from a 30-27 loss to Florida State. This time, North Carolina is looking to rebound from a 13-0 loss to rival North Carolina State 12 days ago.

Wide receiver Danny Coale, one of 17 seniors playing their last home game at Lane Stadium, says that 2009 defeat has stuck with the Hokies.

“You always remember the losses more than you remember the wins, I think. Thursday night losing to Georgia Tech two years ago and then coming back here and losing to North Carolina in back-to-back weeks, that was something I won’t forget, and it stayed in the back of your mind as motivation,” Coale said. “We’ve watched moments of that film, just trying to see what we think they’re going to do and refresh your memory even more just knowing that we kind of let them have one, we didn’t play well.”

After the jump, read about the four things I’ll be focusing on — besides Darius Rucker singing the national anthem — in this year’s matchup.

North Carolina’s balanced offense

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said this week he would have figured North Carolina would have a better record considering the sheer amount of talent on its roster. Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner leads the ACC in passing efficiency and completion percentage on is on pace to set a program record for touchdown passes. Running back Giovani Bernard is one of three ACC backs to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season (David Wilson and Miami’s Lamar Miller are the others). Wide receiver Dwight Jones, meanwhile, has 63 catches, 913 yards and eight touchdowns this year.

But that trio hasn’t been immune to poor performances. In fact, take a look at their splits in regard to how they’ve performed in the Tar Heels’ wins and losses:

Renner in wins: 75.1 completion percentage; 240 ypg; 13 TDs; 4 INTs

Renner in losses: 64.2 completion percentage; 208 ypg; 6 TDs; 7 INTs

Bernard in wins: 109.3 ypg; 5.8 ypc; 8 TDs

Bernard in losses: 89 ypg; 4.8 ypc; 3 TDs

Jones in wins: 109.7 ypg; 7 TDs

Jones in losses: 63.8 ypg; 1 TD

This will be a big game for Virginia Tech’s secondary, which had four interceptions in last year’s win over the Tar Heels and ranks first in the nation this year, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 48 percent of their throws. However, they’ll also have to help against the run since the Tar Heels have started to rely on Bernard more and more as the season has wore on.

Virginia Tech’s offensive line vs. North Carolina’s defensive line

We’ve all marveled at what quarterback Logan Thomas and running back David Wilson have been able to accomplish this year, but a lot of their success is because of Virginia Tech’s offensive line, which features four senior starters. Offensive line coach Curt Newsome said this week the Tar Heels possess the best defensive front the Hokies have seen thus far, especially future NFL first-round pick Quinton Coples at defensive end. But if Virginia Tech can give Thomas time in the pocket — the Hokies have only given up 10 sacks all season — he should have a field day against North Carolina’s secondary. The Tar Heels are 91st in the country defending the pass, giving up an average of close to 250 passing yards per game.

The first quarter

North Carolina enters this game having lost three of its past four games, and a trend has emerged now that the Tar Heels are 10 games into the season. In their six wins, they’ve outscored their opponents, 49-0, in the first quarter. In North Carolina’s four losses, it has been outscored, 37-14. Though Virginia Tech is outscoring opponents 63-41 in the first quarter, it has allowed the opposing team to score first in six of its 10 games this year. The Hokies would be best served to avoid a slow start against a Tar Heels squad that has yet to come-from-behind to beat a team this year.

My prediction: Virginia Tech 38, North Carolina 20

I’ll actually go one step further with my prediction this week. By around 11 p.m. Saturday night, the Hokies will also have clinched the Coastal Division because I don’t see Virginia getting past No. 23 Florida State this week (the Cavaliers’ strength is their rushing attack, but the Seminoles have the best rush defense in the ACC this year). But what do you think happens Thursday night? Vote in our poll below, and let me know what you think in the comments section.