Critical Rivalry Game Ahead

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The offseason hype surrounding No. 25 North Carolina has dissipated through the first three weeks of the college football season. UNC’s outcome at East Carolina on Saturday will prove pivotal in either kindling or extinguishing that flame.

Despite improving to 2-0 with its 31-27 win over San Diego State on Sept. 6, UNC fell out of the AP Poll and dropped to No. 25 from No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

The last time UNC fell in the polls following a win was in 2009. The Tar Heels dropped from No. 19 to No. 24 in the AP Poll after topping Connecticut, 12-10, on the road. The voters were proven correct in their opinions as UNC lost three of its next five games.

The polling data provides context to the shift of popular opinion surrounding UNC’s current team, although the Tar Heels remain undefeated at 2-0.

This weekend’s trek to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will present an opportunity for the Tar Heels to reestablish their preseason positioning with media types and their fan base. It could also serve as confirmation that recent criticisms are valid.

East Carolina is 2-1 after splitting road games to ranked opponents the last two weeks – a 33-23 loss to then-No. 21 South Carolina followed by a 28-21 win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech – and is receiving votes in both polls.

The Pirates are a 2.5-point favorite over the Tar Heels, who are 0-4 against the spread as road underdogs under head coach Larry Fedora.

Fedora, who is 3-3 all-time vs. East Carolina, told reporters on Monday that this ECU team was the best he’s encountered out of Greenville since starting his head coaching career at Southern Miss in 2008.

That’s a telling statement considering UNC’s 55-31 loss to the Pirates at Kenan Stadium last September. ECU needed less than 20 minutes to build a 21-3 lead, due in large part to missed assignments by the defense and inefficiency by the offense.

ECU’s 55 points marked its most in the series, its 101 plays were the most ever by an opponent against UNC and its 603 yards of offense were the second-most by an opponent at Kenan Stadium.

Fedora hasn’t harped on last season’s performance to his team, saying, “I can assure you they haven’t forgotten it.”

Senior defensive tackle Ethan Farmer told reporters that Saturday’s game has been on the Tar Heels’ minds since Dec. 28, in the hours following UNC’s 39-17 Belk Bowl victory over Cincinnati.

“Personally, I don’t think he needs to motivate us,” said senior safety Tim Scott, who started watching ECU film the day after the SDSU victory. “If we’re not motivated after they embarrassed us last year, then we shouldn’t show up.”

Mere mention of last year’s debacle has produced a Pavlovian response of sorts, according to Scott. The coaches talk about ECU, the players think about getting embarrassed.

“You really don’t have to say anything,” Fedora said. “These guys don’t forget things like that.”

Saturday’s contest, which is rich in layers, also represents the first leg of the mythical state championship that Mack Brown created and that very few of his successors have won. The last time UNC won its entire slate of in-state games was in 2005 under John Bunting (2-0 vs. NCSU & Duke).

“That’s one of our key goals – to be state champs,” Farmer said. “It starts with ECU, so we know what we have to do. We’ve got other games, but ECU is on our mind.”

It’s an important game for UNC’s head coach as well. Not only did Fedora take over a program emerging from a NCAA investigation in 2011 – and is still dealing with the sanction fallout with regard to scholarship reductions – but he did so when in-state rivals ECU and Duke were building solid programs under Ruffin McNeill and David Cutcliffe, respectively.

A loss on Saturday would drop Fedora’s record at UNC to 0-4 following a bye week and 3-5 against FBS in-state opponents, which would present an additional obstacle on the recruiting trail.

A win, however, would push Fedora’s record to 18-10 in Chapel Hill with winning records against ECU and N.C. State, and more importantly move UNC to 3-0 heading into its ACC opener at No. 22 Clemson next week.

As raucous as Death Valley can be, Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will serve as ample road prep for the Tar Heels, given the hatred that spans the 100 miles between these two schools.

“Who doesn’t like rivalries?” Fedora said. “Who doesn’t like playing teams that dislike each other? I think that’s a good thing. You know what the stadium is going to be like; you know that the crowd is going to be hostile. You’ve got to relish in that environment. That should be a lot of fun.”

What level of scrutiny follows UNC to Clemson, however, will be determined by how well the Tar Heels play in Greenville on Saturday.

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