CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the last two years, North Carolina opened the season with FCS opponents and rolled to relatively easy victories. Most teams around the country will do that this weekend. But few besides their own fan bases will care (unless, of course, they lose).
On Thursday night, the Tar Heels will be on a national stage opening college football at No. 6 South Carolina. They’ve been preparing for it all offseason, letting the thought of it fuel them in everything they did to get ready. Head coach Larry Fedora has heard all about it from North Carolina fans eager to beat their border rivals, too.
“The fans have been excited about this game since it’s been on the schedule and they’ve talked a lot about it in the off-season,” said Fedora, who is entering his second season at the helm in Chapel Hill. “Everybody has wanted to talk about it. That’s part of the excitement. Your players sense that. They know that. That’s kind of extra motivation in the winter conditioning and spring ball and summer workouts. That’s just extra incentive to push a little bit harder.”
Were it not for NCAA sanctions, UNC would have played in the ACC Championship game last year. They’re under no such postseason restrictions going into this season, and they’re eager to prove that they’re legitimate.
If nothing else, Fedora will know a lot more about his team after this game than he would have if the Tar Heels had opened with the Elon, like they did last year (winning 62-0).
“It gives you a better idea of where you’re at. After that first one, you’re going to have a much better feel for what kind of team we’re going to be and where improvement needs to be made,” Fedora said. “Sometimes when you go the other way (and play an FCS team), you don’t always know that.”
Some fans nationally may not watch the Tar Heels play another game all season, something senior defensive end Kareem Martin says he and his teammates understand. And so they have to be crisper than most teams are this early in the year. There’s no margin for early-season errors.
“It’s big because we know that everyone’s going to be watching,” Martin said. “If somebody wants to watch football, they’re going to be watching UNC on Thursday. We know we have to go out there and show them. We can’t go out there making the mistakes that everyone makes in their first game because what everyone sees that first game, they’re going to put that with Carolina football.”
Martin is more experienced than some of his younger teammates that will almost certainly see the field, including some freshmen. Ideally, their first college game action wouldn’t come on the road against a top-10 team, but that’s the downside of opening with a game like this without getting a “warm-up” against an FCS opponent first.
And while the Tar Heels have had some injuries in camp, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, Fedora isn’t playing the freshmen because he has to, for the most part. He’s putting freshmen out there that he believes will get the job done.
“As a coach, you talk about dependability. So you go through camp and you try to identify the guys that have been dependable during camp, because you don’t want to put a guy out there just to see if he’s going to do it,” Fedora said. “We would like to know that we know he’s going to do it and he’s done it in camp and he’s done it multiple times.
“But some of them are 17-18 years old and it’s a big game and there’ll be nerves involved. Some of them won’t play like they normally play right off the bat until they settle down and realize that it’s just a football game and they’ve been playing football since they were 5, 6, 7 years old and it really hasn’t changed. It’s blocking, tackling, running, catching. It’s just on a bigger stage.”
But that bigger stage is what Martin said he and his teammates came to North Carolina to play on.
“Every guy came here to play on that stage. If guys didn’t want to play on a big stage, we could have went to small schools,” Martin said. “But this is everything we’ve worked for. We want to be the team that everybody’s watching, so now we finally get our opportunity. We just have to grasp it and take advantage of it.”
A game like this, even a loss, does wonders for the brand Fedora is trying to build at North Carolina and the excitement he’s generated around the program.
Even though the fact that South Carolina is an SEC team plays into that buzz, Fedora isn’t necessarily buying into the whole “ACC vs. SEC” storyline.
“(The players) probably get the sense of that because that’s all that’s out there in the media is the SEC. But we’re not playing the SEC,” Fedora said. “We’re playing South Carolina. It’s one team in that league. A very good football team in that league, a team that’s ranked No. 6 in the country. But we haven’t talked about league vs. league, no.”
That’s not quite how Martin sees it, though.
And he knows North Carolina’s game isn’t the only important one the ACC will play this weekend.
“The ACC, we’re a good football conference as well. Everybody only talks about us as basketball but football, we’re just as good as any other conference in the country,” Martin said. “This is a big weekend for the ACC as a whole.”
The ACC isn’t a league that displays the same kind of solidarity as the SEC does, traditionally. At least, not among the fan bases. But the players all want the league as a whole to be better, and Martin said that’s only accomplished by the ACC winning important non-conference games like this one. So he’ll be rooting for the other ACC teams in every non-conference game as if he were a fan.
“When they’re not playing an ACC team, you always want to build the brand of the conference. Later on in the year, I’d rather play a No. 15 Virginia Tech team than a Virginia Tech team that’s lost a couple non-conference games,” Martin said. “That’s not only going to help the conference, but it’s going to help us ultimately when we play them and get the victory. It’ll bump us up in the rankings.
“I’m rooting for every ACC team that’s playing an SEC opponent or any non-conference opponent. I’m fans of them until we play them.”