Both teams have played well in recent weeks after early-season troubles. The Tar Heels had their four-game winning streak snapped last week at Miami, while the Tribe is looking to win its seventh-straight game after losing their season opener to Massachusetts.
While it's tempting for fans to view this weekend as a quasi open date, William & Mary currently sits at No. 3 in the latest FCS poll and defeated Virginia, 26-14, to open the 2009 season. And if the Tar Heels needed any more reason to take the Tribe seriously, they only have to look as far as Blacksburg, where FCS member James Madison upset Virginia Tech earlier this season.
"If you don't respect your opponent, it's the biggest trap in America," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "It doesn't matter who the other team is, it's really about how you play."
Former Tar Heel and current Tribe quarterback Mike Paulus (64-of-107 passing, 674 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) filled in nicely when starting quarterback Mike Callahan (70-of-110 passing, 939 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) went down with a shoulder injury last month. Callahan returned in the second half last Saturday to lead William & Mary past Delaware, but Paulus's familiarity with the UNC program has likely placed him in a leadership role this week.
"As a competitor, you've got to want to play this game just because of who they are," Paulus said. "They're a I-A school and we're a I-AA school, and we're playing well and we want to show that we can compete with the big schools. There's a lot of motivation right there."
In a rare twist, North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop will square off against his older brother Bob, who is in his fourth year as William & Mary's defensive coordinator. John's group of Tar Heels is averaging 364.3 yards (69th nationally) and scoring 26.0 points (70th) per game, thanks in large part to the strong play of fifth-year quarterback T.J. Yates (133-of-203 passing, 1,635 yards, 11 TD, 3 INT). Bob counters with a defense that ranks 29th nationally (318.1 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (16.0 ppg), despite struggling to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks (1.29 sacks per game, 89th).
"They are so fundamentally sound and are well-coached, and their defense moves a ton," Davis said. "They've got fire zones, they've got blitzes, they move and they really try to put a lot of pressure. Offensively, the run the ball very well. They've got a good play-action passing game and they are very good in the return game… If you're ranked in the top-five of anything, you've got to be good in all phases."
And while Callahan's return last weekend provided a boost to William & Mary's 50th-ranked offense (357.9 ypg), North Carolina is expecting a similar adrenaline shot with the return of All-ACC cornerback Kendric Burney after missing seven games due to his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation. The Tar Heels played the fourth quarter against the Hurricanes with only two true freshmen and a red-shirt freshman available at cornerback, so the fifth-year senior's addition to the starting lineup is critical.
More than two dozen Tar Heels were not available in the second half against Miami, some due to suspension, but most due to injury. Eight players were listed as "out" or "doubtful" to play against William & Mary on the school's official injury report released on Thursday.
North Carolina's constantly evolving defensive lineup has still managed to be productive this season, ranking 46th in total defense (347.7 ypg) and 42nd in scoring defense (21.3 ppg).
"It's very, very noticeable as you look at it on film how good they are," Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "I know they have some people that are in or out of the lineup or this type of thing, and I really don't have the history or know that much about it to know who has been in or who wasn't in. I just look at who's in there, and they've got players."
A win on Saturday would give Davis a 5-0 record against FCS opponents during his tenure as North Carolina's head coach.