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UNC Football: Adjusting to the national spotlight

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Will this young Carolina team be able to avoid buckling under the pressure of being one of the best teams in the country?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Boston College Adam Richins-USA TODAY Sports

There is a new reality for Carolina football, and it’s one that I am not completely sure that we were ready for just yet: they are officially a top ten team. Sure, on the surface this seems like a harmless, exciting, and of course very fun thing to say. However, it’s a statement that comes with a lot behind it, especially when you are a team that hasn’t been ranked this high since 2015. Unfortunately we know how it ended the last time: Clemson took down the Heels 37-45 in the ACC championship game, and then Baylor beat them in the Citrus Bowl with a freakishly similar final score of 38-49.

That was all of course 2015. This team has a new head coach in Mack Brown, and it’s time to see if they are really prepared for what is ahead. This weekend is an immediate test as they will take on No. 19 Virginia Tech in Kenan Stadium. Due to the postponement of their game against Virginia, the Hokies match UNC’s 2-0 record with wins against both NC State and Duke. For those looking at the matchup optimistically, the Hokies allowed 386 and 410 yards in both games respectively. Pessimistically? They logged 495 and 487 yards on offense. A lot of their damage will come from their run game, which thankfully has been the strength of Jay Bateman’s defense so far this season. In the games against Syracuse and Boston College the Heels allowed just 108 total rushing yards. Can someone say unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?

During Mack Brown’s press conference, he had this to say about UNC taking on their first ranked team of the season:

“Now we’re in a position where we’re a ranked team playing a ranked team. And that didn’t happen this last year, we were never ranked,” Brown said. “... there’s no question that our fans will feel very passionate about winning every game but more passionate about winning the ones when they have friends from those universities. So, yeah, this becomes a game that is really important to our fan base.”

He then went on to discuss where he thinks his team is at compared to where they are currently ranked:

“Our program is really a little bit publicly ahead of where I think it is. We’ve still got some work to do. We’ve still got a lot of youth. We’ve gotten a lot of credit. I’m still not sure we know who we are yet. So we’ve got to improve and we’ve got to continue to work.”

Brown brought up two very good points in those statements that are worth discussing. The first being that the fan base will feel like every game is a must-win with the expectations being this high of a top-10 team. It’s a fascinating thought considering the fact that just two years ago we were all suffering through the final season of the Larry Fedora era, one of which ended in such painful fashion that many of us likely shunned it from our memories.

The other excellent point that he brought up is that this team is a little bit ahead of themselves as far as public perception is concerned. Granted, this team has looked good in its first two games, and there are definite improvements that are worth noting from last year. However, if there is one area that is especially concerning so far it is the offensive line. This banged up union has struggled to keep Sam Howell safe in the pocket, but that should improve if left guard Joshua Ezeundu is able to return soon.

Another area that needs improving that Mack Brown mentioned involved the offense in general. His message to the team this week was simply to relax, as the unit has put a lot of pressure on themselves to score on every drive and score quickly. It’s understandable why that is the case, as that pressure comes from both what they were able to do near the end of last year and what the fans have come to expect as a result. However, in football it’s really hard to hit home run plays every time you step onto the field. It will be interesting to see if the offense enters Saturday’s game with a bit more poise, and a bit more of a calculated attack.

With all of that said, UNC being ranked in the top ten is both a blessing and a curse, but whichever the way the scale tips falls on them. This weekend’s game will be extremely important in gauging how the rest of this season could play out, as they’re not expected to play another ranked team as of right now until they take on Notre Dame on November 27th. Mack Brown’s squad is officially in unfamiliar waters, and now it’s time to see if they will sink or swim.