Two years ago, UNC and Rutgers were almost identical teams, beginning their sixth season under coaches hired to turn the teams around, both having improved to near .500 seasons and the occasional bowl game. It was a tossup as to who was going to win the game in Chapel Hill, and both teams looked at it as a chance to start the season that would take them to the next level.
The 21-16 score was closer than the Heels deserved, a fact borne out by the teams' quite different fortunes. UNC's coach was fired before Rutgers had lost a game; the Scarlet Knights have since that game gone 18-8 and won two bowl games, while Carolina went 8-16 and hasn't sniffed the postseason. The divergence can't be blamed on one game in September 2006, but you can't help but look back at it and wonder what would have happened if Joe Dailey had found the end zone in the fourth quarter.
This year, however, Rutgers has returned to earth, with running back Ray Rice now in the NFL, and a good chunk of the offensive line he started behind also gone. Replacement Kordell Young had a good game against Fresno State, but the team was undone by a defense that gave up 206 yards on the ground and some critical big plays through the air. The downside is UNC has yet to produce a back who can take advantage of the Knights' weak run defense, and the Heels did not show a particular propensity to stop the McNeese State offense, let alone that of a BCS school.
The team UNC is supposed to be this season should be able to wear down Rutgers Thursday night; the team that's taken the field so far this season will not. Carolina gets a chance to restart the season, and they don't need another two years of futility.