CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina opens its 2016 season with yet another opportunity to grab national headlines and cement its top-25 status when it plays No. 18 Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Saturday.
High-profile season openers have not been kind to the Tar Heels over the past two decades. UNC is 0-8 in openers against Power 5 conference opponents, dating back to a 23-6 win over Indiana in Mack Brown’s final season as head coach in 1997. Former UNC coaches Carl Torbush, John Bunting and Butch Davis failed to secure the momentum bounce that P5 season openers offer. Larry Fedora, now in his fifth year as the Tar Heels’ head coach, is 0-2 in P5 season openers, dropping games to South Carolina in 2013 and 2015.
There is a different feel to Saturday’s matchup, though. Torbush desperately needed a win over Virginia to open the 1999 season after stumbling to a 7-5 record in his first year replacing Brown. Bunting’s 2001 squad made its trip to Oklahoma entertaining late despite being heavy underdogs. The 2010 matchup with LSU at the Georgia Dome was an opportunity to boost UNC into the national conversation under Davis, although the onset of a NCAA investigation derailed the Tar Heels before they ever boarded the bus.
This time, however, UNC is entering its top-25 matchup after reeling off a school record 11-straight wins in 2015 and playing in its first-ever ACC Championship Game. In years past, the Tar Heels have entered primetime games such as this one, contests scheduled to manufacture offseason hype, hoping to become relevant on the national stage.
That’s no longer the case. UNC’s 11-3 breakthrough in 2015, accompanied by a competitive matchup with then-No. 1 ranked Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, has earned Fedora’s squad a level of respect that has been lacking since the Brown era. A year removed from throwing away a season-opening win against South Carolina in Charlotte, the Tar Heels are saying the right things.
“We understand that we gave that one up last year, so we’re just trying to get back out there on Saturday and prove to ourselves and to other people that we belong in the conversation,” senior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “I think it’s a test that we’ve had to wait a whole year to take.”
Possibly the greatest benefit of the South Carolina loss was the minimal impact it had on UNC’s run to its Coastal Division crown. Instead of overhyping this game against Georgia as a must-win, the Tar Heels realize its more of an opportunity than a defining moment.
“It’s a big game,” Fedora said. “It’s against a great opponent who has a great tradition. They are well known. It is a good measuring stick for where we are with this program right now. Everyone knows – win or lose – it doesn’t make or break our season one way or the other because it doesn’t affect our goals we have for this football team.”
Season openers represent a slate of firsts for the teams involved. For UNC, Saturday represents the first career start for junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who played in 19 games during his first two years in Chapel Hill. He will be tasked with replacing record-setting quarterback Marquise Williams, who directed the nation’s most explosive offense (7.28 ypp) in 2015.
The large majority of the offense returns, led by All-ACC running back Elijah Hood (1,463 rushing yards, 17 TD in ’15), All-America PR/WR Ryan Switzer (1,795 career receiving yards) and four offensive linemen that have logged 112 career starts.
For Georgia, it marks the debut of head coach Kirby Smart, the former Bulldog defensive back who became a hot commodity after serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator for the past eight years, as well as a brand new coaching staff in Athens. It’s also the first game back for All-SEC running back Nick Chubb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at Tennessee last October.
Without Chubb, Georgia’s offense struggled, finishing the season ranked 83rd in total offense (377.2 ypg) and having to lean on a stout defense (16.9 ppg, 8th nationally) to grind out a 10-3 record.
Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will test UNC’s run defense early and often with Chubb, who rushed for 100 yards or more in 13 consecutive games before his injury. UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has stressed stopping the run this offseason after his unit allowed 247.4 rushing yards per game in 2015, including a bowl-record 645 rushing yards by Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“We’re definitely going to answer all questions and we’re definitely going to stop the run,” sophomore linebacker Andre Smith said. “It’s been a big emphasis throughout fall camp and throughout our preparations for Georgia, so we’ve spent a lot of time going through run fits and making our adjustments, so it’s definitely been an emphasis.”
Back in ’97, UNC entered its opener against Indiana ranked No. 7 season in the preseason poll and finished the season ranked No. 6 following a 42-3 throttling of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. That was the last time the Tar Heels opened and closed a season ranked in the polls, which is yet another streak Fedora’s squad intends to snap this season.