CHARLOTTE, N.C. – An offseason fueled by equal parts optimism, trepidation and speculation comes to an end on Thursday when North Carolina opens its 2015 campaign against South Carolina in the Belk College Kickoff Game at Bank of America Stadium (6pm/ESPN).
An up-and-down 2014 season ended with blowout losses to rival N.C. State and Rutgers, which led to locker room chemistry issues making their way into the public domain and the removal of Vic Koenning’s defensive coaching staff. With a litany of returning starters and experience on both sides of the ball, as well as the addition of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and his hand-picked coaching staff, the Tar Heels have spent the last eight months forgetting the past and focusing on 2015.
The time for talk is over, as the lingering questions will be answered – or not – against the Gamecocks in a significant litmus test for the UNC program under Larry Fedora’s direction.
“We need to get this ‘W,’” fifth-year senior quarterback Marquise Williams said. “I feel like we need to get this ‘W,’ and I know a lot of guys say we won’t, but I feel like we need it because it will help us out. There hasn’t been too much talk about UNC football this year in the ACC. We don’t get many good rankings and if we come out and we do what we need to do, and we come out with a W, that’s going to open a lot of guys’ eyes… This is huge for us.”
A sizable segment of the fan base agrees, pointing to a three-game stretch following Thursday’s opener that includes two FCS programs (NC A&T, Delaware) and a middling P5 opponent (Illinois) that fired its head coach last week. The next opportunity for national publicity is more than a month away when UNC visits Georgia Tech in a pivotal ACC Coastal Division game on Oct. 3.
Fedora has owned the 2014 fallout, but he’s hesitant to put too much significance in one nonconference game in a 12-game season.
“I don’t know if it’s added importance,” Fedora said. “It’s pretty important. The way we come out on Thursday night and the way we perform, but it doesn’t define our season. It gives us an idea of where we’re at. No matter what happens, we’ve still got a long season ahead of us, so we’ve got to be prepared.”
UNC will be seeking its first win in a season opener against a BCS/P5 opponent since 1997. The Tar Heels are 0-7 since that time, last losing at South Carolina, 27-10, in Columbia, S.C. on Aug. 29, 2013.
Williams (3,068 passing yards, 788 rushing yards, 35 total TD) directs an experienced Tar Heel offense that struggled with inconsistency throughout the 2014 season. The difficulties were masked in part due to tempo – UNC led the ACC with 1,005 snaps – despite a 5.56 yards-per-play average that marked the program’s lowest since 2009 and Fedora’s lowest in seven years as a head coach.
UNC returns all five starters up front and boasts the most career starts along the offensive line in the ACC, which served as the basis for an offseason emphasis on running the ball. Sophomore Elijah Hood (259 yards, 4 TD) won the starting job at tailback in training camp, while UNC’s top four receivers from last season – Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard - all return.
After setting ACC single-season records in touchdowns allowed (67) and points allowed (507) in 2014, the impact of Gene Chizik’s hire was immediate for both the defensive roster and the fan base. Instead of languishing in the ineptitude that was arguably the worst defensive season in school history, both fronts looked ahead to a 4-3 defense built upon fundamentals, technique and a more simplistic scheme.
Chizik has downplayed expectations, suggesting that Thursday’s game will serve as a measuring stick for his unit’s offseason efforts.
“You do not have any idea where you're truly at until the lights come on, it's a nationally televised game and you watch these guys respond,” Chizik said. “We can have our best guess, but I've been fooled a lot of times.”
Chizik’s implementation of the his 4-3 scheme and the removal of Koenning’s 4-2-5 presents a magnitude of guesswork for South Carolina’s offensive staff. The same holds true for UNC assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell, who is tasked with game planning for South Carolina’s new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and his NFL roots.
“We researched a little bit of what Auburn did when [Chizik] was head coach,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said. “But who knows if he’s got some new schemes. We’re expecting some different stuff and I’m sure they expect some different stuff from us as well. The days of just lining up in a 4-3 are over. Guys are disguising and bringing guys from everywhere. That’s what college defense is all about now.”
As for Spurrier’s offense, quarterback Connor Mitch (a Raleigh, N.C. native) will make his first start after two appearances in 2014. The Gamecocks return just four starters on that side of the ball, but have a pair of playmakers in running back Brandon Wilds (570 yards, 4 TD in ‘14) and wide receiver Pharoh Cooper (69 catches, 1,136 yards, 9 TDs).
“They click on all cylinders,” UNC senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad said. “Obviously, they’ve been running a similar offense for a while, so they’ve got in down. It’s not something that they’re just getting into. It’s something that they understand, so they know what they’re doing and it’s something they’re going to be good at, so we have to be on our p’s and q’s.”
The Gamecocks are favored by 2.5 points and have won six of eight in the series since 1980 despite trailing 34-19-4 overall.
“I’m excited to see what this 2015 team is going to be all about,” Fedora said. “That’s what I’m excited about. There’s no way to know. You just don’t know. You practice, you put them in all of the situations you can put them in and you hope that they’re focused and locked in and that it carries over into the game, but you don’t know until you get out there.”