No. 23 Tar Heels want to live up to preseason hype
North Carolina has been ranked in the preseason before. But it hasn't finished the year ranked since 1997. Will this be the year it can hang on to a top-25 spot?
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora could probably name a starting quarterback for this weekend's game. But he's having a little fun with it instead.
Liz Condo / USA TODAY Sports
By Lauren Brownlow
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina is the only team left in the ACC and one of only a handful nationally that have yet to name a starting quarterback. And while the media isn't enjoying itself, UNC head coach Larry Fedora certainly is.
"Somebody is going to go out there," Fedora said, a mischievous glint in his eye. "It'll probably a quarterback, though."
Perhaps Fedora hopes to gain some advantage over Week 1 opponent Liberty, an FCS team out of the Big South conference. Perhaps he wants the two quarterbacks -- the incumbent Marquise Williams and the redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky -- on their toes.
Or, perhaps he just likes messing with everyone.
"Because it bothers a lot of people. That'd probably the No. 1 reason, is that everybody wants to ask about it and so it just gives me pleasure," Fedora said, smiling. "It just gives me pleasure."
And he wasn't giving anything away. When asked if neither quarterback had separated himself from the other, he said only "you could say that if you want." The logical follow-up, then, is if that's true, would that be a concern for him?
Not at all, Fedora says.
"I've said from all the way back in the spring that I believe we've got two guys that we can win with. So it's really not a position that I'm deeply concerned about," Fedora said. "Actually, I've got a lot more concerns at other positions than I do at that position. In fact, if we can get to a point -- and we will get to a point -- where we have that type of competition at every position on this football team, when we do, then we're going to be a really good football team."
Quarterback drama aside, the Tar Heels are starting out the season ranked (No. 23 in both polls) for the first time since 2010. The Tar Heels were the preseason No. 18 team before NCAA issues forced them to hold out a bunch of starters, and they dropped from the poll for good after losing the opener to LSU.
This year's team isn't as talented as that one was, and in spite of its top-25 ranking, it has plenty of issues, particularly along the offensive and defensive lines. But the voters clearly liked the way North Carolina finished last season (winning six of its final seven games) and the players that it brings back at the skill positions.
One such player is sophomore wideout/punt returner Ryan Switzer. The All-American admitted that the ranking means a lot to both he and his teammates.
"For me personally, I think it's pretty sweet to see your team's name run across the little clicker on ESPN. It's just something I pay attention to," Switzer said. "But it just means that you've got a responsibility to uphold. I don't know how long it's been since Carolina's come into the preseason ranked, but even when we have, it hasn't ended well for us. So we know we have a job to do.
"We're ranked for a reason, and I think we're rightfully so ranked the way we finished last year and everybody we've got coming back. It's going to be exciting to play with that ranking beside our name and keep it on there for the entirety of the year."
The last time North Carolina was ranked for consecutive weeks was 2009, when they spent the preseason and most of September in the top 25. After a bit of a skid, they went on a winning streak again to get back into the poll in late November, only to lose at N.C. State.
The last time UNC finished ranked in the final poll was 1997, back when Mack Brown was in town. So Switzer was right that things have generally gone south for the Tar Heels at some point, even in seasons where they've been ranked. And they've been ranked at some point in five of the last 16 seasons. Two of those were preseason only.
North Carolina stands a better chance to hang onto its ranking for a bit with its opening schedule of hosting Liberty and San Diego State. How it does beyond that, or even who its starting quarterback will be, remains a question mark.
But for now, everyone insists that they're just worrying about Liberty.
It's not unheard of for an FCS team to knock off an FBS team -- even a ranked team -- and Liberty is a veteran group led by former Kansas head coach Turner Gill. It won't be the kind of test North Carolina will get later in its schedule, but it's a test nonetheless.
And as junior offensive lineman Landon Turner pointed out, it's not like North Carolina has always taken care of business when it comes to games it should win. The Tar Heels haven't lost to an FCS team since 1999 (their only such loss in program history), but they've lost winnable games in Fedora's first two seasons. At Wake Forest in 2012, for instance. The list goes on.
"I've experienced that. I've been in some tough games. I've been in games we should've won and we didn't," Turner said. "That's when it's on the older guys to remind the younger guys and ourselves that we can't look past it. It's just being disciplined enough to keep reminding ourselves we can't look past this game, and none of us really have. I feel pretty confident that everyone's been really locked in on Liberty these past few weeks."
And yes, to Turner, the ranking means something, too. But even more important is living up to that ranking. And that starts on Saturday.
"It's exciting," Turner said. "But for us, that's not enough respect. We want to take what's ours finally and show the country what we can do."