Countdown to Kickoff: Liberty

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 23 North Carolina opens the 2014 season against Liberty at Kenan Stadium on Saturday (6pm/ESPN3).

The Tar Heels are favored by 26 points over the Flames, a FCS program that returns 14 starters from a 2013 team that closed an 8-4 record with five straight wins. UNC represents the first ranked FBS opponent Liberty has faced in school history.

The Tar Heels are ranked in the preseason – No. 23 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls – for the first time since 2010.

Larry Fedora, in his third-year as UNC’s head coach, will showcase his deepest, yet youngest, team during his tenure in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have just six scholarship seniors on its roster and only one senior starter on offense – tight end Jack Tabb.

Forty-six of UNC’s 55 touchdowns in 2013 were scored by freshmen and sophomores.

Given Fedora’s track record against FCS and lower-level FBS opponents, that amount of youth won’t be enough to prompt the Tar Heels to overlook the Flames. UNC routed Elon (62-0) and Idaho (66-0) in 2012 before dismantling Old Dominion (80-20) last fall.

“We prepare for every game the same way,” Fedora said this week. “We really don't talk about the strengths or weaknesses of our opponents. We really try to put in a game plan and work exactly the same way each and every week.

“We have respect for every team that we play. It really doesn't matter who it is, where we're playing, what time we're playing, what the weather's like, any of those things. We want to go out and play our best ball every week.”

Liberty head coach Turner Gill’s veteran squad will have its hands full with a Tar Heel offense heavy on skill talent and light on experience up front. The Flames ranked ninth nationally in the FCS in total defense (313.9 ypg) last season, but didn’t face playmakers like All-America WR/PR Ryan Switzer (T-NCAA record 5 punt returns for TD in ‘13), running back T.J. Logan (533 yards, 4 TD) or wide receiver Quinshad Davis (48 catches, 730 yards, 10 TD).

UNC quarterback Marquise Williams (126-of-217 passing, 1,698 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT; 536 rushing yards, 6 TD) helped the Tar Heels close last season with six wins in their final seven games, but has been embroiled in a quarterback battle with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky since spring ball.

Both quarterbacks are likely to see snaps on Saturday.

Assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell has taken over for Blake Anderson’s as UNC’s offensive signal caller, and his arrival is expected to translate into more of a vertical passing game in Fedora’s no-huddle scheme. UNC averaged 72.5 plays per game in 2013. That number is expected to rise as Littrell’s Indiana offense averaged 77.3 last season.

“We have to hold them to their average of 72 plays,” Gill said. “They’ve averaged about 72 plays, but there are games where they get up to 80-90-100. If they get up into those numbers, that’s not good. It’s not just that the defense has to hold them under 72 plays, it’s our offense, too, meaning that they’ve got to be able to run some more plays and not have a lot of three-and-outs.”

UNC received both good news and bad news on the personnel front this week.

Senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer’s academic appeal to the NCAA was approved on Wednesday after languishing in no-man’s land throughout training camp. The Tabor City, N.C. native started all 13 games at nose tackle in 2013.

On the negative front, four defensive backs – Des Lawrence, Brian Walker, Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart – were suspended for Saturday’s game due to a violation of team policies. The suspensions were announced one day after a Yahoo Sports report on Tuesday alleging a training camp assault at the Aloft Hotel earlier this month.

UNC, which hasn’t eclipsed the eight-win threshold since 1997, is intent on winning the ACC’s Coastal Division crown and wants to use Saturday’s opener as a spring board to that goal.

“It seems more attainable than it ever has since I’ve been here,” junior right guard Landon Turner said. “I think we have the tools. We just have to put it to use.”

UNC has won five of its last seven season openers. All five victories came against FCS opponents.

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