Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. MSU

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina opens its 2008 season with high expectations on Saturday night as the Tar Heels welcome the McNeese State Cowboys to Kenan Stadium for a 6:05 p.m. kickoff.

Butch Davis enters his second season as UNC's head coach with 18 returning starters, including red-shirt sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates (59.7 completion percentage, 2655 yards, 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in ‘07) and junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (74 receptions for 958 yards and 5 touchdowns).

Game Week

Yates in Charge
Preseason Coverage

Learning From the Past
PC Quotes + Audio
ICTV Interviews
Week 1 Depth Chart
Opener Game Sold Out

Opponent Preview: McNeese State
Video Interview: Deunta Williams
Video Interview: Hakeem Nicks

Finishing Touches
Butch Davis Teleconference
Video Interview: T.J. Yates

Butch Davis Radio Show
Photos: Kenan Stadium
Up first for the Tar Heels is Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) standout McNeese State, which ranks 10th in the FCS preseason polls. While it should be noted that North Carolina hasn't won back-to-back season openers since the 1996-97 seasons, the Tar Heels are heavily favored in this contest against a program that many observers are unfamiliar with.

"One of the things that we try to explain to our players is that every year you're going to be playing some non-conference games, and a lot of times, they may not have name recognition," Davis said. "Certainly everybody knows who Notre Dame is, but there's to be some teams over the next ten years that may not have that name recognition, so you have to rule out what you see on the helmet."

But as Davis continues to rebuild this program, this game carries significant importance. UNC fans have been conditioned over the past decade to involuntarily twitch at this level of opponent. Carl Torbush's 1999 squad was embarrassed by DI-AA Furman, 28-3, at Kenan Stadium, and John Bunting's second team committed nine turnovers in falling to Ben Roethlisberger's Miami (Ohio) Redhawks in 2002 before squeaking by Furman 45-42 in 2006.

To get this program back to the Mack Brown glory days, Davis understands that while McNeese State must be respected, these games are designed to be breaks in the schedule -- learning opportunities, if you will. Davis' only other time coaching against the Cowboys occurred in 2000, as his Miami Hurricanes posted a 61-14 victory.

Obviously, this North Carolina team is not at the level of that Miami squad that finished the season with a 11-1 mark and a No. 2 national ranking. But the Tar Heels need to score a convincing victory if they expect their offseason momentum to roll over to the Thursday night ESPN primetime showdown with Rutgers on Sept. 11.

That's not to demean a solid McNeese State ball club. The Cowboys have won 17 of their 20 games under third-year head coach Matt Viator, and with 13 starters returning from a squad that posted an 11-1 record in '07, they are favored to repeat as Southland Conference champions.

McNeese State averaged 35.2 points and 431.5 yards per game last fall, thanks to a read-option spread attack that utilizes a variety of speedy weapons at the skill positions.

"[The offense] all really centers around what our offensive line can do, and what our quarterback can run," Viator said about the spread. "We think that Derrick Fourroux has done a really good job of running our offense and getting the ball to where we need to get it in the past. We'll see if that's going to happen that way this year."

Fourroux (125-of-218, 2054 yards, 16 touchdowns) presents problems by running and passing the ball, and wide receivers Quinten Lawrence and Steven Whitehead have combined for 166 career receptions for 2,582 yards and 23 touchdowns.

"They are a very fast football team – they are very similar to Appalachian State, from the standpoint that they've got some talented, fast kids," Davis said.

The Tar Heels have been preparing for this season for the better part of nine months, and that long wait comes to an end on Saturday night. The players have felt the excitement surrounding their program. They've read the press clippings and they've heard about the season ticket and individual game sellouts.

Now, all that's left is getting this season rolling.

"Once you hit this tunnel and the smoke is going and you hear the fans going crazy and the band is playing and you see the recruits down there – it's just a feeling that's unmatched," sophomore safety Deunta Williams said. "It's a blessing to have the opportunity to play like this. There are a lot of schools that don't have stuff like this, so I feel like we're blessed every time we hit the field. It's going to be a tremendous opportunity for us this Saturday."

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