In the first four years since Larry Fedora took over in Chapel Hill, North Carolina has been up-and-down during college football’s opening week. Against mediocre, smaller schools, the Tar Heels have been just fine, coming away with comfortable wins on the back of explosive offensives. When facing legitimate opponents with noteworthy football programs? UNC hasn’t been able to impress.
In 2012, UNC defeated Elon 62-0 in the first game with Fedora at the helm. Fedora’s debut couldn’t have been more perfect, and Bryn Renner and Giovani Bernard had fantastic days. Even against Elon, such a promising display signaled a change already happening in Chapel Hill. Similarly, in the 2014 opener, Carolina defeated Liberty 56-29. North Carolina has had no difficulty in destroying inferior competition on opening days. Of course, they shouldn’t. The struggles arise when the university tries to perform in a big opening weekend matchup with pundits and fans watching all over.
The two other opening games in Fedora’s tenure have come against rivals South Carolina. In 2013, the Heels went down to Columbia and were promptly handled 27-10 by the Gamecocks. Nobody expected UNC to win, and most of the attention surrounded Jadeveon Clowney (who had a horrible game by the way). Nonetheless, nothing about Carolina’s performance that day said that the program was turning into a football powerhouse. The offense struggled to get anything going (36 rushes for just 99 yards), and the game was pretty much decided by the end of the first quarter (17-0 Gamecocks). Not exactly the opening day performance UNC wanted.
Then, last year, UNC and USC kicked off the 2015 college football season again on a Thursday night in Charlotte. South Carolina was a top 10 team in 2013 but, this time around, they weren’t even ranked. It was the perfect chance for Carolina to get a much-needed win over an SEC opponent, the kind of win that makes commentators, recruits and fans start to turn their heads a little bit.
Instead, the game was absolutely horrendous with neither school playing well. The worst of Marquise Williams showed up (three interceptions), Fedora seemed to call all the wrong plays in the red zone, and the Gamecocks battled their way to an ugly 17-13 win. The only positive takeaway was the defense stood strong under new hire Gene Chizik, something that had let them down greatly in the previous seasons.
Other than that, the lackluster performance on prime-time television completely took over the national storyline for UNC. North Carolina wouldn’t lose again until the ACC Championship Game, but it didn’t matter. The Heels took forever to get into the top 25 and were generally counted out by pundits everywhere. Even as the squad improved, that opening South Carolina loss overshadowed everything that came after it. If UNC can win that game in Charlotte, the entire narrative around last season is altered.
Now, North Carolina gets another opportunity to make a statement right off the bat. The Heels will take on the Georgia Bulldogs in the Georgia Dome on the first weekend. North Carolina should be in the top 25 when the polls are released, but Georgia should be around the top 10. Already, many are predicting the Bulldogs to stomp the Heels, and it’s probably a fair assessment. UNC hasn’t been able to beat SEC schools lately, and their high-powered offensive has been stymied.
Yet, if the Heels can upset the Bulldogs, it could change everything for the season. Fedora will have one of the best wins of his career, boosting the confidence in a team that will face Duke, Miami, and Florida State all on the road later in the year. They’ll be vaulted closer to the national spotlight, and everyone will begin to talk about how the ACC success is finally translating to big-time wins. If UNC loses in humiliating fashion, though? The Heels will be doomed again to little coverage or notice, the third or fourth best team in a conference not respected for its football.
North Carolina has long been known as a basketball school, but they are doing everything they can to be more relevant in football. The hiring of Fedora and the implementation of a high-scoring, fun-to-watch offense was just the first step in becoming nationally known. The next? Winning football games. Fedora and company have been winning football games, including an appearance in the ACC Championship Game last season. Still, a marquee win in early September eludes them and, unfortunately, both games against SEC foes South Carolina have negatively impacted UNC’s football image. If Fedora really wants to change the notions about Carolina’s football program, the Heels need to show up on opening weekend against Georgia.