Mike: Gaining an Advantage

With the 2002 season upon us, the question marks surrounding this installment of Carolina Football have all been well documented.

Over the next two days, some of the questions will be answered, some will become more urgent, and new ones will arise. Yet, perhaps the biggest question mark for this year's Tar Heels will be one which has received little, if any, attention from the media: How much impact will the fans in Kenan Stadium have?

Sure, we're wondering about the defensive line and linebackers, but if the same talent and coaching were placed in a program with a strong reputation for an intimidating home field advantage, how would the pundits be evaluating the Heels' chances this year?

Before the season, most evaluations of the ACC penciled Florida State back in as #1 and Duke in their familiar last place. The only real debate on the Devils concerned whether they would beat hapless Navy. In between the top and bottom spots there were many theories, but a general agreement that most anything could happen.

Knowing this, and looking at how most of Carolina's rivals for positions in the upper half of the league are scheduled visitors in Chapel Hill, I can't help but wonder how Carolina would be evaluated if people were looking at Kenan Stadium as something more than a beautiful place to watch a football game.

The games which will decide the success or failure of this season are, as my colleague Andrew Jones loves to say – "Among the Pines." Yet, we don't hear about Miami (Ohio) players talking about how tough it is to play at Kenan Stadium. I am all for creating a pleasant atmosphere for watching a game, but let's not allow our guests to get too comfortable. The simple fact of the matter is that if Chapel Hill was known for loud, enthusiastic cheering, Carolina would most likely be picked at or around the top of the league this year on the basis of home field schedule.

When John Bunting came to Chapel Hill, he knew he had work to do in winning the hearts and minds of the players and the fans. Immediate improvements were seen in strength and conditioning under the tutelage of coach Jeff Connors, and the results were seen almost immediately on the field. Bunting also went to work on changing the culture of Carolina Football, which is where the fans come in.

The ship seems to be effectively turned around on the field and the challenge must now be met in the stands. Untested lineman and linebackers might play way above their heads if being spurred on by 60,000 blue-clad maniacs in the bleachers. They might not, but most would agree that it is much more likely with the push of the masses than without.

Fans can help in making Kenan Stadium an unpleasant place for Tar Heel opponents to play and visit. Not in the sense that opposing teams' players have cause to dodge flying liquor bottles or their fans must worry about belligerent drunks in the parking lot. (Note, I am only against the belligerent drunks in the parking lot.) Fans need to get to the point where Chapel Hill and "tough place to play" become thoughts which occur in almost the same synapse.

Imagine the irony of the house that Mack expanded aided in derailing his best shot at a National Championship – it would be kind of like getting shot with his own gun, don't you think? A loud and enthusiastic crowd won't supply victory, especially if the team on the field doesn't have the goods, but it certainly can help make the difference in a game where every small advantage helps.

It is indeed time for Tar Heels everywhere to put their mouths where their money is – and Answer the Bell.

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