But for this North Carolina squad, the 2009 season may as well be ancient history. A total of 29 scholarship players have missed at least one game due to either injury or the ongoing NCAA investigation, and that number will jump to 30 on Saturday after the school announced that reserve defensive back Terry Shankle is out for the season after tearing his ACL against William & Mary last weekend.
Quarterback T.J. Yates (156-of-236 passing, 1,873 yards, 12 TD, 4 INT) needs only 127 passing yards to become the second player in school history to throw for 2,000 passing yards in three seasons, but despite having his best year as a Tar Heel, the Marietta, Ga. native has received criticism for average performances over the past two weeks.
North Carolina ranks eighth in the ACC in total offense (371.4 ypg, 64th nationally) and 10th in scoring offense (25.4 ppg, 74th).
"I definitely have to play a lot better," said Yates, who is the ACC's active career leading passer with 7,832 yards. "I have to play error-free, as well as being on point. We're going to be playing some tough defenses coming up, so we're not going to be able to give them any charity whatsoever or be able to afford any missed opportunities."
The fifth-year senior has the luxury of a solid ground game behind him as running back Johnny White (713 yards, 6 TD, 5.8 ypc) leads the ACC in yards from scrimmage (975) and is averaging 6.8 yards per touch. Florida State's last three opponents may have provided the blue print for attacking the Seminoles's vaunted defense (17.6 ppg, 15th nationally) after rushing for 549 yards and five touchdowns.
North Carolina churned out 238 rushing yards on a 5.8-yards-per-carry average in last season's loss to Florida State.
A similar dynamic has emerged in Tallahassee. Ponder entered his senior season as a Heisman Trophy hopeful, but has fallen well short of the statistics needed for consideration in completing 127 of his 210 passes for 1,383 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Head coach Jimbo Fisher has defended his signal caller, pointing to inconsistent play at the wide receiver position as part of the problem.
"It's hard to zip a ball when you're not sure where somebody's going to be and throw with confidence,'' Fisher said. "If everybody practiced like No. 7 and played like No. 7, we wouldn't have any issues. The rest of them guys need to take his lead.''
Even so, Florida State arguably possesses the most balanced offensive attack that North Carolina has encountered in '10. The Seminoles average 207.4 passing yards and 207.8 rushing yards per contest, placing them third in the ACC in both total offense (415.1 ypg) and scoring offense (33.5 ppg).
"They've got three really talented running backs and they rotate them in," UNC head coach Butch Davis said on Thursday. "There are not certain things that they do with one that they don't do with the others… A lot of that also has to do with Christian Ponder and his ability to create plays and scramble to keep plays alive. That certainly has helped their rushing game, and they've got talented wide receivers."
North Carolina's banged up defense appears to be getting relatively healthy at just the right time, as linebacker Quan Sturdivant, safety Da'Norris Searcy and defensive tackle Jordan Nix were not listed on Thursday's injury report, while cornerbacks Mywan Jackson (groin) and Tre Boston (ankle) are both listed as questionable after practicing this week on a limited basis.
A loss on Saturday would all but prevent either team from representing its respective division in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 4 in Charlotte, N.C. Florida State would drop a game behind Atlantic rival N.C. State in the loss column after already losing the tiebreaker to the Wolfpack last week, while the Tar Heels would fall three games behind Coastal leader Virginia Tech with only three conference games left on the schedule.