Time: 8 p.m.
TV: ABC (split national) Tim Brant (play-by-play), Ed Cunningham (color) & Samantha Ryan (sideline)
Site: Kenan Stadium (60,000)
Series: FSU leads 12-1-1
Rankings: FSU – 11th USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, 13th AP
Coaches: FSU – Bobby Bowden, 28th season, 259-65-4 .773; UNC – John Bunting, 3rd season, 11-14-0 .440
Last Meeting: FSU 40, UNC 14, Nov. 16, 2002 at Tallahassee – Seminoles' quarterback Adrian McPherson threw four touchdown passes. UNC tight end Bobby Blizzard had six receptions for 100 yards and a TD.
Line: FSU by 16
Thanks to fearless scheduling, the Tar Heels will face nine teams in 2003 that played in bowl games last year. Carolina takes on defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Florida State – the season opener for both teams. UNC returns its top tackler – Dexter Reid, passer – Darian Durant and two top rushers – Willie Parker and Jacque Lewis, but enters the game with a team made up of nearly 60 percent sophomores and freshmen. On the other hand, the Seminoles return 10 starters on defense, including the league's two top tacklers from last season – linebackers' Kendyll Pope and Michael Boulware. FSU also returns tailback Greg Jones, an All-America candidate that averaged an ACC-best 104.2 yards per game rushing in 2002.
Durant embarks on a season in which he will likely break several UNC school records in just his junior season, though despite his many accolades, he is rarely considered among the ACC's top two quarterbacks. He has yet to enjoy a full season as the Tar Heels full-time starter, but possesses an excellent arm and is always a threat to break off the big run. FSU starter Chris Rix has won 14 games in his first two seasons. The Seminoles average 34.1 points per game and have scored 30 points or more 12 times with him as the starter. But much of the aforementioned numbers can be attributed to a fine supporting cast, and therefore the jury is still out on where Rix will end up amongst the long list of great FSU signal callers. His sometimes erratic play and the all-around abilities and experience of Durant gives the slight edge to the Tar Heels.
North Carolina has a stable of four tailbacks that bring a diverse package of skills and certain depth to what has been a major area of concern in recent years. There is no doubt the Tar Heels' rushing game will be improved, but just who belongs in what situations will not be determined until this season has gotten a little older. Florida State returns arguably the ACC's leading rusher in Jones, who rushed for over 100 yards five times last season before being injuring his knee. He is reported to be at full strength and he has practiced mainly against the Seminoles' vaunted defense in preseason. Carolina has improved its depth at tailback, but has not yet had the opportunity to prove that the running game is decisively better against a top-caliber defense like FSU's. For that reason, the edge here goes to Jones and the Seminoles.
As with its running game, UNC has more depth and optimism at its wide receiver position than in many years. Add in tight end Bobby Blizzard, who was the team's co-leader in TD receptions last season with five, and the impact of the departures of Sam Aiken and Chesley Borders could be minimized this season. Durant clearly has more options this season – a big plus. But the Seminoles seem to always have "talent on talent on talent" at the position according to UNC head coach John Bunting. And in Craphonso Thorpe, they have a true superstar in the making. Thorpe is FSU's leading returning receiver, having caught 17 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns during last season, playing behind Anquan Boldin and Dominic Robinson. Blizzard at tight end is the difference here.
Much has been made of the fact the Tar Heels return five starters including All-ACC candidate Jason Brown. No doubt the returning experience will equate to substantial improvement over last year, but again, until the unit has had the opportunity to prove that in a game situation, questions will still remain just how good it can be. FSU lost three of four starters from last season and clearly lacks the game experience that UNC should enjoy. However, it may just be a matter of time before the Seminoles offensive line develops confidence and recognition, and that could happen Saturday. Too many variables to make the definitive call at this point.
The future is so bright for the Tar Heels, especially considering what they went through last season. By 2004 and beyond, the Carolina defensive reputation should be completely restored to that earned by those groups of the mid-1990s that are now represented all around the National Football League. However, the future is now in Tallahassee, and perhaps the biggest fear that the Seminoles bring to Chapel Hill will be an experienced, speedy and intimidating cast of linemen and linebackers. Can't call this one close, in fact this area and special teams could be the decisive factors in the game.
While the Tar Heels' front seven waits to come of age, the cornerbacks and safeties have been working overtime and make up of some of the best athletes on the team. Reid was one of the most productive tacklers in the nation last year, and returns to lead one of the ACC's top defensive backfields. But the Seminoles are just as experienced, with talent two-deep at each position. It was so competitive during FSU's spring practice that two returning starters had to win their jobs back in the fall. Both good enough to be among the league's elite this season, therefore a toss-up.
FSU kicker Xavier Beitia is an All-American, yet UNC's Dan Orner takes a back seat to no one when it comes to hitting the big field goal in clutch situations. But Carolina is still not clear who will be its full-time punter, and the Seminoles coverage teams are simply the class of the ACC. The Tar Heel coaches have placed considerable emphasis on special teams' improvement this season, but again, the Florida State kickoff and punt teams are relentless and have proven their mettle on the field.
Prediction: FSU 34, UNC 20