Tommy: Season Starts Saturday

You say - The Heels are three games into the 2002 football season and they've already lost two. I say - Who cares? The real season starts Saturday in Kenan Stadium.

Gone is the embarrassing turnover plagued defeat. Gone is the impressive win in the Carrier Dome. Gone is the valiant effort against one of the most talented teams -- ever.

A gaudy undefeated record would look nice right now for sure. Imagine the hype and mass media coverage the Heels would be getting right now if they stood at 3-0!

But wins and losses in the "preseason" don't mean a thing if you can't string wins together in the conference and Carolina's "season" begin this week. Saturday brings a nemesis to Chapel Hill in the form of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Tech holds an 18-16 advantage in the 37 game series (three ties) and has won the last four.

As is often the case in football, injury bug is playing a major role this season and Saturday should be no different. The bug bit the Tar Heels this past Saturday as defensive end Isaac Mooring heads to the disabled list with a "non-football related" broken hand. Though he'll be back soon, losing starters for any amount of time on the struggling defensive line does not bode well.

While Carolina has had its share of maladies, it is hard to believe there is any team in the country suffering more than Tech. While Carolina and other foes will certainly benefit from the Jacket injury situation on the field, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the Tech players and staff. The injury to the nation's leading rusher Tony Hollings brings back memories of 1981 and Kelvin Bryant beginning the year with an amazing run of success only to see it come crashing down with a knee injury (ironically against Georgia Tech).

Losing Hollings takes away Tech's best weapon on offense and joining him as a spectator for the rest of the season is GT's best defensive player, end Greg Gathers, out due to a kidney ailment. Gathers, a sure fire NFL draft pick last season had he come out, stayed in school to get his degree and improve his already high draft status. During the summer, he was diagnosed with a kidney ailment and treatment began. After registering only one sack in Tech's first three games, Gathers and his coaches watched game film and saw he simply wasn't playing up to his normal level due to the medications used in treating his condition. With the prospect of missing much of his senior year, Gathers decided to apply for a medical redshirt now and take this time to get healthy with hope of returning next year. Best wishes and a speedy recover to a fine young man.

Now, how do all the injuries affect Saturday's game?

Georgia Tech will be a complete different team without Hollings. The offensive line that Hollings ran behind is intact, but throwing a true freshman, Ajenavi Eziemefe (aka "Ace"), into a starting role against an ACC rival may be the one thing that tips this game into Carolina's favor. Tech will still run the ball, but without the nation's leading rusher, pickings could be slim. Sure, the offensive line plays a major role in rushing yardage, but Hollings was a special player. The type of player that in the recent past, the Yellow Jackets used to pound the Heels on the ground. That said, the Carolina defense has ample incentive to step up. While Tech has great receivers, with quarterback AJ Suggs struggling, Carolina's defense should be up to the task in this game.

Carolina will move the ball on the Yellow Jacket defense. That is a given. I said before the Texas game that if the Heels could move the ball on the Longhorn defense, the rest of the ACC had better take notice. This week, we'll see what I meant.

Without Gathers, Tech will rely on a group effort to pressure the quarterback. Without a consistent pass rush, Carolina's receivers should put up big numbers. That will open the field for Jacque Lewis to continue his breakout party and allow for more quarterback draws as we saw in the Texas game. It will be interesting to see how Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta game plans the Heels since he should know the intricacies of the Gary Tranquil led Carolina offense. This coaching battle will be the subplot to watch on Saturday.

An ACC showdown. The season success of each team hinging on the outcome. Assistant coaches squaring off against former teams. What more could you ask for at 3:30pm on Saturday?

How about a BIG Carolina win.

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