Game of Magnitude

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina opens its home schedule on Saturday against Georgia Tech, hoping to notch a victory against the defending Coastal Division champions that would put UNC in solid position to endure the ongoing NCAA investigation and contend for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.

Three months ago, North Carolina's nonconference opponents meant something to Tar Heel fans who quietly dreamed of an at-large BCS berth or maybe even something grander in scope. But now that the NCAA investigation foiled UNC's hopes for a Labor Day weekend breakout on the national stage, those same nonconference games could potentially serve as quasi-bye weeks as the school's administration works to determine eligibility and potential penalties for the dozen players that have yet to be cleared to suit up on game day.

The Tar Heels travel to Rutgers on Sept. 25 before welcoming in-state rival East Carolina to Chapel Hill on Oct. 2. The next conference opponent – Clemson – doesn't appear on the schedule until Oct. 9. That's nearly four weeks for the administration to sort out the details surrounding this two-pronged review, a luxury of days for a program that is anything but settled.

But that gift of time means little if North Carolina is not able to snap its nine-game losing streak in ACC openers against Georgia Tech on Saturday.

It is likely that the large majority of the dozen Tar Heels currently sidelined will return to action by the time North Carolina travels to Coral Gables to battle No. 17 Miami on Oct. 23. A nearly full allotment of players for the second half of the season would provide UNC with a legitimate opportunity of winning two of three games or even sweeping the crucial late-season stretch against the Hurricanes, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

The Tar Heels must travel to both Miami and Florida State, meaning that there is no margin for error on the home schedule that begins on Saturday. North Carolina stymied Paul Johnson's multifaceted rushing attack in Chapel Hill two years ago, defeating the Yellow Jackets 28-7 despite allowing 326 yards on the ground. Georgia Tech returned the favor last season in Atlanta, churning out 317 rushing yards while effectively ruining UNC's Coastal Division hopes before they ever materialized in a 24-7 drubbing.

Johnson is feeling the effects of losing 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer at running back and Demaryius Thomas at wide receiver, in addition to 2009 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan. The Yellow Jackets made mistakes across the board in Saturday's 28-25 loss to Kansas, ranging from erratic passes to poor blocking to even worse tackling.

But Tech's dynamic ground game is designed to pray on the lapses in discipline by its opponents, and North Carolina's defense – currently missing six starters – would appear to be ripe for the picking.

"Any time you play an option team, there's always the potential that guys want to do more than what they're responsible for," UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday. "Make sure that you cancel out and take care of your particular responsibilities – don't try to do above and beyond the call of duty until you make sure that you do your assignment first."

Fortunately, North Carolina's 30-24 loss to LSU on Sept. 4 reinforced the notion that Davis is one of the top recruiters in the nation. Inexperience and youth saturated the Tar Heels' defense in Atlanta, but instead of wilting under the national spotlight, those players elected to shine.

True sophomore safety Gene Robinson tied for the team lead with eight tackles and true sophomore defensive end Donte Paige-Moss added five tackles and a tackle for loss, while true freshman cornerback Tre Boston served as the headliner with three tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Those performances, mixed with others on both sides of the ball, surprised even the coaching staff and has this program believing they can win regardless of who plays and who doesn't.

"Once we got past that first game, everybody settled in and said, ‘We're going to be alright,'" senior quarterback T.J. Yates said. "Guys played well. There obviously were mistakes, but they're very correctable mistakes. It wasn't personnel or athletic issues. It was just fundamentals and technique type of stuff. We know we've got the talent to compete with LSU, so once we got past the uncertainty, I think guys were ready to go."

There was a sense of calm prevalent at the Kenan Football Center on Monday, something that has been lacking around this program dating back to mid-July when news of the NCAA investigation first broke. It could be that some around the program feel that the worst is over with regard to the review, but it's more likely that North Carolina went into the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game with a plethora of question marks and returned home with satisfying answers.

With or without the dozen players currently in question, UNC has the talent to compete for the Coastal Division crown.

"We've taken the mindset that the guys that played against LSU, that's who we're going to play with, and if we're fortunate to get guys back at any particular time, that's good for us," Davis said. "But right now, we're practicing and preparing to play our game with the exact same football team."

The late rally against LSU boosted spirits within the locker room walls, as well as throughout the fan base. A win against Georgia Tech on Saturday would further that emotion, while re-instilling the pre-NCAA probe hopes that a conference championship season is indeed possible.

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