Carolina entered the clash with the No. 5 Seminoles reeling after a trio of losses by a combined score of 108-48. Yet, to a man, the players said that the real Tar Heels hadn't unveiled themselves in the 2001 season. The first three games were more an experiment of sorts, an exorcism of sorts, an aberration of sorts.
"On defense we felt like we could dominate their offense from the first play of the game," said UNC senior linebacker David Thornton. "We had studied them. We had seen their offense on film and they weren't too complicated. We have the speed and talent up front and in the secondary to go out and be aggressive and attack their offense the whole game. Everyone was just flying to the ball wanting to make a play."
The Heels made many plays. In fact, they made seemingly every play and somehow overpowered the once invincible ‘Noles and shocked the college football world with a 41-9 victory. Suddenly - many are wondering - is this a sign of the future or just a deviation from a somewhat benign and reticent football existence?
"I am not sure what people will expect now," said UNC senior wide receiver Kory Bailey. "We are a lot better than we had shown and can play with anyone. Is this really us? I think so, but we need everyone to think so - and do so."
The miserable start appeared more puzzling to the average eye after Saturday's shocking outcome, yet there were signs that UNC would eventually make someone of significance pay as they dredged through a tough slate, seeking their new-found personality and eliminating the ills of the Carl Torbush era.
Consider that Carolina had played with Oklahoma for nearly three quarters after being railroaded early on in the opener, falling behind 41-7 halfway through the second quarter. However, a deeper analysis of that game shows that had UNC's inept offense and inconsistent special teams taken care of the basics, in conjuntion with an excellent defense, Carolina would have had a shot against the defending national champs
UNC's offense was shell-shocked early on, turning the ball over and allowing the Sooners to waltz into the end zone like a matador timidly yet comfortably welcomes a bull's passing.
Mere moments into the affair, the Heels found themselves in a Torbush-like syndrome and reminders of Furman, Houston, Maryland and Miami (Oh) ran rampant in the Norman, Okla, heat. But when the dust settled, so-to-speak, the Heels regained an acceptable form and left with their dignity - and some confidence - falling 41-27 and making Bob Stoops' squad and contingent of crazed fans sweat until the end.
"Hey, those Heels are gonna get someone soon," wrote one OU fan on Oklahoma message board SoonersIllustrated.com 36 hours after John Bunting's debut as UNC's head coach. "That defense is amazing and the offense showed potential. They might even beat the (Texas Longhorns) ‘Horns."
Before the ill-fated trip to Austin, Texas, Carolina had to visit conference foe Maryland, and after dominating nearly the first three quarters, the weary Heels wilted and the Terrapins pulled away for a 23-7 victory.
"That was tough," said Bailey. "We knew we were better than them, but we didn't play well. I guess we still had to learn and develop."
Bunting learned that the off-tackle approach and seven-step drops weren't getting the job done on offense. So he and offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill decided to open up the running game in Austin. They figured that inside handoffs from the shot gun could work and allow the backs to choose an open hole instead of running through a pre-determined one, which was usually minuscule. It worked for a while as Carolina played with the No. 4 Longhorns of Mack Brown – trailing just 20-14 in the third quarter - until the wretched play of the special teams doomed UNC's hopes for an upset late in the third quarter, and Carolina slumbered back to Chapel Hill with a 44-14 loss.
At 0-3 the Tar Heels had their game with Southern Methodist postponed after the tragic terrorist attacks on the U.S. and prepared for the invincible Seminoles.
"We knew all week we could beat them," said senior quarterback Ronald Curry. "Every team has down years and they didn't look like the team we played last year. We had confidence."
Not to mention chutzpah.
The confident Heels beat the Seminoles from the very first snap and didn't let up. Yes, there remain areas of major concern. No doubt Carolina's 34 unanswered points in the second half were laced with flukish ideal, and yes, piling on the revenge after a decade of FSU bludgeoning may have had as much to do with UNC as it did a stunned and unfocused gang from Tallahasse. But the bottom line is simple.
North Carolina showed it has talent. Bunting proved he can motivate, prepare schemes and handle the magnitude of his position. And even if only for a day, Carolina showed it can follow a scintillating defense chock full of future NFLers to the highlight reels around the nation.
They also showed that sleeping giants are often hard to awaken, but when they are, all nearby paths are susceptible to destruction.
Perhaps the Heels aren't yet an awakened giant in football. The QB situation is still a mess, the ground attack still struggles at times, and the special teams play is still inconsistent. A program that hung out in the top ten just a handful of years ago needs to learn how to win again, not just on Saturday, but on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And when they do - perhaps in a few more weeks and even a loss or two down the road - the Tar Heel faithful might once again dream of the BCS and gridiron glamour.
But to do so, this team must continue to defy logic and lay the foundation of a future that has many scenarios. If Saturday's showing is any indication, Bunting is the right man for the job and Carolina may finally have the tough-minded coach to accomplish what so many experts have felt UNC had potential to do: win and win big time.
Until then, the only logic that remains is in the postgame as figuring this bunch out may take a while.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.