This Saturday’s showdown in Tallahassee between UNC and FSU is a big one. The Louisville-Clemson matchup later that same night may be stealing much of the attention, but don’t let that overshadow what’s sure to be an entertaining, high-scoring affair. The Noles are desperate to get back into the national spotlight, while the Tar Heels look for the statement win that’s eluded them the past few seasons.
Outside of the conference and divisional implications, discussed on this site by Matt Ferenchick, there is a lot riding on this game for head coach Larry Fedora and his football team. Should they win, it would easily be the biggest win of Fedora’s head coaching career, as well as one of the most important in recent Tar Heel history.
Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, Fedora has struggled in winning marquee matchups. Out-of-conference opponents like South Carolina and Georgia. Bowl games against strong competition like Baylor. ACC games against some of the conference’s best like Clemson and Miami. Time and time again, UNC has fallen short of capturing this kind of win. In knocking off FSU, Fedora would be getting the largest monkey off his back.
Not only would a win validate Fedora as a head coach—particularly when you take into account he’s facing off with Jimbo Fisher, arguably a top 5 coach—but the entire football program at UNC would be elevated. Games like this are remembered when the season is long over and, whether it’s fair or not, people’s collective memory about what happened can change the perception of a school. That mindset trickles down to everyone from recruits to players to fans to boosters and more.
Elsewhere, a win in Tallahassee could propel some of the Tar Heels to special seasons. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky had a splendid game against Pitt and currently appears to be one of the best passers in the country. He could solidify that judgment with a similar performance against Florida State. He doesn’t have to get 453 yards and five touchdowns, either. If Trubisky plays like he has the past few weeks against FSU, he'll hear his name alongside the likes of Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Louisville's Lamar Jackson (ok, maybe not that last one).
Ryan Switzer, too, suddenly finds himself in the conversation for best receiver in the ACC, maybe even in the country. His steady development into a top-flight wide receiver has been remarkable, to say the least. When he was juking on electrifying returns as a freshman and doing little in the passing game, it was difficult to imagine him eventually catching 16 passes for 208 yards in a single game. Now, as Trubisky’s favorite wideout, his star could only rise with another dominant display like that.
Lastly, the whole team can find a boost from a road win. This team has never experienced anything like the raucous atmosphere in Doak Campbell. If they come out alive, every single person on the team should be feeling confident.
Ultimately, winning this game would give everybody involved the chance to propel forward: the program, the coaching staff, and the players. It’s the sort of game and performance that can define what it means to play UNC football. All that’s left is for the Tar Heels to go out and actually win it.