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The Debate: Looking ahead to the football schedule

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What game(s) should Tar Heel fans circle on the calendar?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, The Debate evaluated what fans could consider a successful football season. Joined both in the article and the subsequent Don’t Punt to Gio podcast by Chad Floyd (@Chad_Floyd), there was a healthy debate about whether or not a bowl game is the ultimate measuring stick. During the podcast, the conversation wandered to the key games for the season. That discussion prompted this week’s question.

Now, on with the show.

The Debate for the week of May 13: What is the most important game of the Tar Heel Football 2019 season?

Point: Opening Night - August 31 vs. South Carolina

It has been nearly 20 years since the Tar Heels last defeated a FBS (or Division I-A) opponent on opening day. The date was September 2, 2000, and the opponent was Tulsa. There have been opening day wins since the Tulsa game, against William & Mary (2004), James Madison (2007 and 2011), McNeese State (2008), The Citadel (2009), Elon (2012), and Liberty (2014), but all of those were against FCS opponents.

It is time for the Heels to step up in a big way on opening night. Mack Brown and the new staff have injected energy into the program and a real sense of hope for the future. A highly rated incoming recruiting class is raising the prospect for a successful season, regardless of how it it defined.

That momentum, however, must be carried into September. Laying an egg on the first outing of the year is a non-starter. More than just being competitive in a nationally televised game, however, this is a chance for the Heels to make a statement that they will be a contender. It is also a shot at an SEC opponent.

The season can not be won on the last day of August, but it can be lost.

Counter Point: November 14 at Pitt

By the time the Heels travel to Pittsburgh in mid November, the season could well be on the brink. A 4-5, or potentially 3-6 record is conceivable considering the difficult schedule that faces Carolina this year, if a few bounces go awry. If a bowl game is to be achieved, there may need to be a win streak at the end of the season after a start that can only be described as brutal. That streak could start against the defending Coastal Champion Pitt Panthers.

The Thursday night game will be nationally televised and could be a key statement for recruiting purposes. It also comes late enough in the season that the story of Mack Brown’s coaching comeback will be well underway.

Over the past two years, Pittsburgh accounted for two of the five total Tar Heel victories. For whatever reason, Carolina has had the Panthers’ number. That may have to be true again this year, in a difficult road environment, for UNC to have the kind of tangible success we all want to see.

Counter Counter Point: Win the rivalry game against NC State on November 30.

Determining which game on the schedule is the most important largely turns on what you as an individual fan deem the criteria for “success.” It’s hard to deny, though, that the NC State game will check all of the boxes.

First, it is undeniably an important game for the fan base regardless of the season outlook. This is a rivalry in the true sense; a real “these teams cannot stand each other” type of game no matter how differently their seasons might be going. NC State has taken the last three and it is past time for some payback.

Second, this game is very important for recruiting. Mack Brown has been extremely vocal about winning the state of North Carolina when it comes to drawing top talent. He is certainly doing that early, but prevailing on the field against the recruiting competition will be necessary for long term success. There is a very easy narrative that goes along with “come play for us and we will beat those other schools you are considering.”

Finally, and back for a second or third time, this could be the key game to becoming bowl eligible. It also could mean sending the Wolfpack home short of a bowl bid. How sweet that win would be.

Time for you to decide! What game needs to be highlighted on the schedule? Is it the start of the season, the end of the schedule, a late season Thursday night game, or something else? Reclaiming the Bell from Duke? Staying competitive against Clemson? There are literally a dozen choices for this one.

As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles!