Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. RU

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The storylines surrounding Thursday night's contest with Rutgers in New Jersey are plentiful, but for North Carolina, one thing is clear – a victory in front of a national ESPN audience would serve as a giant step forward in the Butch Davis era.

When the Tar Heels take the field against the Scarlet Knights at 7:30 p.m. at Rutgers Stadium on the seven-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, television and radio announcers will have a smorgasbord of topics to fill the airwaves.

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There's the fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference has played more like a struggling mid-major league than a BCS power, with embarrassing losses such as N.C. State's 34-0 debacle at South Carolina to open the collegiate season and Maryland's 10-point loss to Middle Tennessee State. Closer to home, it's the history lesson saturating the Tar Heel beat, as UNC has not won outside the state since its 38-35 victory at Arizona State on Oct. 5, 2002 – a span of 20 games.

But this current North Carolina squad is not concerned about the ACC's troubles, nor is it giving extra thought to road losses that occurred while most of its roster was still in high school.

"We're not trying to worry about the media and the league," red-shirt sophomore quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We're just trying to worry as much as we can about ourselves, because the more we prepare and the more we concentrate on what we have to do, that will carry onto the field and take care of it self."

The focus at hand is walking into a hostile environment to square off against a former Butch Davis protégé in Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, who served as Miami's defensive coordinator in 1999 and 2000. The Scarlet Knights have posted two of their biggest victories in school history on Thursday night, knocking off No. 3 Louisville, 28-25, in 2006 and then upsetting No. 2 South Florida, 30-27, last season.

The win over Louisville drew a 5.03 national rating and a 8.15 mark in New York City, the highest-ever rating for an ESPN college sporting event in the New York television market.

Needless to say, the atmosphere will be electric and the crowd noise will be deafening. The Tar Heels have attempted to recreate those sounds during practice over the past four days.

"It's extremely loud out there, but we want to take it as high as possible to be prepared for anything," Yates said. "We've been working on the hand signals and silent snaps, trying to communicate with the linemen and the wide receivers and the running backs as much as possible. We've learned a lot in the past couple of days, working things out that we might not have been prepared for if we didn't do it in practice."

One thing is for sure, though. There will be no visits to the Louisville Slugger plant or to the U.S. Olympic Park this week, luxuries that former head coach John Bunting added to long road trips as educational opportunities for his players.

"We're not going to visit the Statue of Liberty, we're not going to the zoo, we're not going to stay overnight at Broadway and catch a play,'' Davis said. "It's a business trip, and I think when you've got a very, very young and inexperienced football team, it's something you have to constantly remind them – to stay focused."

It's ironic that North Carolina's last appearance on Thursday night was a 23-0 abysmal loss at Virginia in 2006, a game that served as the final nail in the coffin for Bunting. But for Davis, a victory in New Jersey on Thursday promises to add more energy and legitimacy to his rebuilding project in Chapel Hill.

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