After eight months filled with varying degrees of hype and skepticism, North Carolina is ready to take the field for the first time in Butch Davis' third season at the helm in Chapel Hill. Despite questions surrounding the offensive line and wide receiver position groups, the Tar Heels enter '09 ranked No. 20 in the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 21 in The Associated Press poll. But those preseason rankings, as well as the multitude of other prognostications, mean nothing when UNC takes the field on Saturday evening.
"As a football team, we've reached the point where you need to play a game to measure where you are at this stage of the season," Davis said. "… You need to play a game to make some final evaluations. Certainly, you want to play well in the first game. You want to play sharp and you want to execute – that's always a concern for a coaching staff."
The Tar Heels appear to have the ingredients for a dominant defense, returning an Atlantic Coast Conference-best nine starters on that side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers must improve on last fall's statistics – UNC ranked 11th in the league in total defense, giving up 365.4 yards per outing – which took a nose dive during the second half of the season, allowing three of the final five opponents to cross the 400-yard barrier.
"Consistency is a big issue because last year we had signs and flashes that we were maybe one of the best defenses in the ACC," senior defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "Our goal is to shut every opponent out, but realistically that's not going to happen every week. We just want to play a consistent, tough, physical brand of defense."
The offense welcomes back third-year starting quarterback T.J. Yates (81-of-135 passing, 1168 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT) and running backs Shaun Draughn (866 yards, 3 TD) and Ryan Houston (299 yards, 8 TD), as the offseason attention has focused on developing the short-yardage passing game while being able to rely more heavily on the rushing attack.
The reason behind that strategic shift is that Greg Little (11 receptions for 146 yards) is lone returning receiver () to catch a pass in '08. It doesn't help that starting wideout Dwight Jones is sidelined for 2-3 weeks as he recovers from knee surgery on Friday.
Wilson indicated that the Tar Heel defense is ready to carry their counterparts, if needed, saying, "We have the talent, we have the depth, and we have the experience to carry this team."
The Citadel is coming off a 4-8 (2-6 SoCon) record in '08, marking the program's 10th losing season out of the past 11. But fifth-year head coach Kevin Higgins returns 10 starters on defense and two crucial pieces to his offensive attack in quarterback Bart Blanchard (205-of-345 passing, 2436 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT) and first-team All-American wide receiver Andre Roberts (95 receptions, 1,334 yards, 14 TD.
Davis consistently talks about the value of shared experiences, and last year's narrow 35-27 season-opening victory over FCS opponent McNeese State give the Tar Heels plenty of reason to maintain focus against the underdog Bulldogs.
"The Citadel is not just going to lay down," Yates said. "They're going to be ready to come at us at full force, so we've got to be prepared for that."
Welcome to the 2009 football season.