Tar Heels coach John Bunting agrees, saying "based on what I've seen we are a better football team then we were last year at this time. I think in part because we ran a real good training camp, and in part because I think our players are better."
Ditto for the Seminoles.
Tabbed a 16 ½-point favorite, FSU is expected to win its 14th consecutive season-opener and help set the tone for a new season. This also marks just the sixth time in 12 years that the Seminoles open the season against an Atlantic Coast Conference member.
For the record, Duke has been on the losing end of four of those games by a combined average score of 54.2 to 16.7.
UNC should be a better test, even if it finished 0-6 at home last season, allowing 34 points or more in four of those losses, and is coming off a horrific 3-9 mark. It doesn't seem that long ago when the Tar Heels won five consecutive bowl games and finished 11-1 and ranked sixth nationally (1997).
Of course, the Seminoles are returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. FSU's dynasty started to crumble two years ago with its stunning 41-9 loss at North Carolina. The Seminoles had reached the 10-win mark in 14 consecutive seasons before going 8-4 in 2001. They won the Atlantic Coast Conference last season but went 9-5.
"It was ridiculous, watching their fans tear down the goal posts," FSU cornerback Stanford Samuels said.
"It was a horror flick"
One that had consequences.
"That was definitely the start of the slide," Bowden said.
"We had just played for the national championship the year before. We were 2-0 and then lost that one, and lost it bad. Then we took in some more losses. You have to say that was the starting point."
FSU is hoping Saturday represents the "starting point" of the program's climb back into national prominence.
Here's a quick breakdown:
WHEN FSU HAS THE BALL:
Okay, the Seminoles should be able to run against an UNC defense that surrendered 221.2 yards per game last season to rank 111th in the NCAA, right? Even behind a young offensive line that actually made nice strides this preseason despite being dominated by a much stronger and more experienced defense, right? Even if tailback Greg Jones is not 100 percent following reconstructive knee surgery, right?
Just like two years ago, wink-wink?
The Tar Heel defense suffered some big-time lumps last year undergoing a youth movement. There are several starters returning, so the hope will be for the young players who struggled last year are much improved.
Still, UNC's front of Jacques Dumas, Donti Coats, Chase Page and Tommy Davis should not send shivers up the Seminoles' spines. Page is one of only two returnees to start every game last season while Coats is the lone senior.
The Tar Heels' linebacking unit features sophomore Doug Justice and a bunch of question marks.
Unless the learning curve along the Seminoles' offensive line is way off, this is a good starting point in terms of rush-block. Now pass-block can be somewhat tricky, especially if the Tar Heels steal a page from the Seminoles' preseason book and attempt to blitz quarterback Chris Rix silly.
Keep in mind Bunting is a former heralded UNC linebacker and co-defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. And if the Tar Heels are going to have any chance for the upset, they need to force FSU into silly mistakes.
Well, this is where Rix shows FSU fans and the nation he's an improved quarterback from last season. Sure, he's going to still make mistakes but he's should have a better command of the offense. Honestly, Rix shouldn't be a concern if he's making good decisions.
It's going to be up to the Seminoles' receivers to show that it's indeed a group capable of making big plays on a consistent basis.
"I am pretty pleased (with receivers) but I am not going to say I am jumping for joy yet," FSU offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden said.
"I see the potential for a good group. I see potential for good play, but this group has to stay focused. Really focused on everything they do."
UNC's secondary is now considered a strength, even though it was shaky at best last season.
Michael Waddell was one of the ACC's best cornerbacks in 2001 but he wasn't nearly the same player last year. He led the Tar Heels with two interceptions and eight broken up passes before breaking his leg late in the season. Dexter Reid is one of the nation's best tacklers and an unsung star at free safety. He's the nation's leading returning tackler (166) and has 334 tackles on his career.
WHEN FSU'S ON DEFENSE
UNC's offense starts and ends with quarterback Darian Durant.
Even though he missed four games with a broken thumb last season, Durant led the ACC in total offense averaging 285.6 yards per game and throwing for 16 touchdowns. A mobile quarterback with great accuracy, he should be one of the better players in the ACC.
Bunting is also looking for an improved performance from his running backs, a unit that only averaged three yards per carry and ran for five touchdowns last season. Seniors Willie Parker and Jacque Lewis are talented, combing for 810 rushing yards last season, but need help up front to find any daylight.
And that's the good news for UNC -- the line returns all five starters and protecting Durant is a major key.
Junior center Jason Brown started all 12 games last season and is considered a star in the making. He set the school record for offensive linemen with a squat of 660 pounds and a power clean of 392.
The Tar Heels' best catching threat is probably tight end Bobby Blizzard. He's 6-3, 273 pounds and can run and catch. He had 25 catches for 409 yards and five touchdowns last season. Plus, this is a guy who enjoys blocking as well.
Jarwarski Pollock is the team's leading returning receiver with 31 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns. UNC must somehow replace the tandem of Sam Allen and Chesley Borders, a pair that combined for 100 receptions, 1,489 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
UNC should provide an early test for FSU. Good.
Two points of emphasis. No 1, it will be interesting to see how the Seminoles' defense performs after a stunning preseason. Keep in mind the Tar Heels led the ACC in passing offense last season for the first time since 1963.
No. 2, FSU players say they are ready to trust Rix in the pocket. Bowden says Rix is good enough to help the Seminoles win a national championship if he plays up to his potential.
JIM HENRY'S PICK
UP NEXT: Maryland at Doak Campbell Stadium, Sept. 6. The Terps were upset Thursday night by unranked Northern Illinois 20-13 in overtime.
2002 FSU Statistics
Scoring: 30.6 (3rd ACC, 32nd NCAA)
Rushing: 187.0 (3rd ACC, 35th NCAA)
Passing: 211.1 (6th ACC, 62nd NCAA)
Total Offense: 398.1 (2nd ACC, 32nd NCAA)
Scoring: 21.5 (4th ACC, 32nd NCAA)
Rushing: 130.8 (4th ACC, 37th NCAA)
Passing: 235.2 (8th ACC, 85th NCAA)
Total: 366 (5th ACC, 61st NCAA)
2002 UNC Statistics
Scoring: 18.6 (9th ACC, 108th NCAA)
Rushing: 102.5 (9th ACC, 106th NCAA)
Passing: 266.6 (1st ACC, 22nd NCAA)
Total: 369.1 (6th ACC, 67th NCAA)
Scoring: 35.1 (9th ACC, 102nd NCAA)
Rushing: 221.2 (9th ACC, 111th NCAA)
Passing: 231.3 (6th ACC, 80th NCAA)
Total: 452.4 (9th ACC, 102nd NCAA)