Even with the fallout of the multiple suspensions levied by the NCAA and UNC on the Tar Heel football program on Friday, there is still the matter of actually playing the game against LSU. In spite of the fact that Carolina will take on Tigers in a very depleted state, there are still reasons to be optimistic about how the team might perform Saturday night:
- A healthy offensive line. For the first time in recent memory, Carolina will open a season with a healthy, intact, and deep offensive line. Much has been made of how bad UNC's offense was last year, but a lot of that fault, particularly early, was due to injuries and poor play on the O-line. It will be refreshing to see what that unit looks like at full strength. Hopefully the line can open holes for Johnny White and can give T.J. Yates time to find receivers.
- The second-team defense is still pretty good. One of the challenges in building a program is building depth, and despite the fact that many of the suspended players have been starters for most of their careers at UNC, there is actually game experience in the second unit. Along the line, Quinton Coples, Tydreke Powell, Donte Paige-Moss, and Jordan Nix have either started or have significant game experience, which will be crucial against an LSU offensive line that gave up 39 sacks last season. And in the defensive backfield, there was preseason buzz about how LeCount Fauntroy and Mywan Jackson were ready to step up. That time is now.
- LSU's offense is as bad as UNC's. Most people seem to forget that LSU's offense was actually statistically worse than UNC's last year. The Tigers have been working with a patchwork O-line and their starting tight end is out for Saturday night. If Carolina's offense doesn't give away points and field position, it will still be incumbent on LSU's offense to actually move the ball and score on UNC.
- Teams sometimes respond to adversity. Yes, it would be something out of a storybook, but if UNC can come out and actually move the football, help out the defense by winning field position and putting points on the board, maybe UNC gets enough confidence to stay in the game. It has happened before - Florida State put all of the Bobby Bowden distraction behind them in last year's Gator Bowl for a big win. Besides, even SCAR, who was facing similar issues to UNC, was by many accounts not handling the distractions of the investigation into its program well. But Thursday night the Gamecocks came out focused and easily handled a game Southern Miss team. Not to suggest that LSU is anything like Southern Miss, but teams can rally when things look bleak.
- There may yet be hope for the players held out. Again, to use Little Carolina an example, the NCAA on Wednesday told SCAR that all 12 players involved in the Whitney Hotel issue were suspended. Less than two hours before the game, the Gamecocks were preparing for a dozen players to be out. But by kickoff, all but two players were cleared and played in the game. That's not to say the same thing will happen with UNC, but it does give a glimmer of hope for the nine players who were held out. I'm sure any player cleared by the NCAA or the school tonight or tomorrow could potentially rejoin the team within 3-4 hours given that there are plenty of flights from RDU to ATL, even on Saturday.
(Just a quick side note: UNC has taken much grief from media types and rival fan bases about the "cone of silence". Please tell me exactly what information SCAR or Steve Spurrier have released about the investigation into its program, even now? And more important, how many people knew the NCAA had suspended a dozen players over 24 hours prior to SCAR's game? And UNC gets blasted for clamming up. Carry on.)
As Norman Dale said in "Hoosiers", "I would hope you would support who we are, not who we are not. This is your team." And despite the personnel losses, there is no reason for the team or its fans to throw in the towel. Besides, whenever you play a Les Miles team, you're always in the game.