Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. GT

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The real season begins on Saturday as No. 18 North Carolina travels to Atlanta for its ACC opener against Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech at noon (Raycom).

The Tar Heels (3-0) enter the 45th meeting between these two programs as 2.5-point underdog, which is not surprising considering their recent history at Bobby Dodd Stadium – UNC hasn't won in Atlanta since 1997. Georgia Tech leads the overall series, 23-18-3.

But the past will have little bearing on Saturday when North Carolina brings the ACC's top run defense (1.8 yards per carry, 52.3 yards per game – seventh nationally) to try to stop the league's best rushing attack (243.7 yards per game – 16th nationally). The Yellow Jackets churned out 326 rushing yards in last season's 28-7 loss in Chapel Hill, although 120 of those yards came after UNC had already built a 21-0 lead.

Former North Carolina assistant and current Miami defensive coordinator John Lovett supplied the 2009 blueprint to shut down Paul Johnson's multidimensional ground game last week as the Hurricanes held the Yellow Jackets to 95 rushing yards on 39 attempts. It certainly didn't hurt Miami's cause that Jonathan Dwyer (168 yards, 2 TD) was sidelined with a shoulder stinger. The 2008 ACC offensive player of the year returned to practice on Monday and is expected to be at 100 percent on Saturday.

The buzz word at the Kenan Football Center this week has been "discipline."

"Coach [Butch Davis] has been preaching that all week," safety Melvin Williams said. "If you've got the dive, you've got the dive. If you've got the pitch play, you've got the pitch play. If you've got the quarterback, you've got the quarterback. If you try to do somebody else's assignment, that's what gets people beat."

Cornerback Kendric Burney was a little more direct in his synopsis, saying "If you're not disciplined, you get killed."

The Tar Heel defense appears to be up to the challenge, having held its first three opponents to 33 total points. The last time UNC held three consecutive opponents to 20 or fewer points was back in 2000 (Virginia, Pittsburgh and Maryland).

Junior quarterback T.J. Yates (51-of-76, 574 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) guided North Carolina's offense out of an early season hibernation in last Saturday's 31-17 victory over East Carolina, thanks in large part to the emergence of the young receiving corps and the offensive line. That momentum could possibly continue against a Georgia Tech squad that is surrendering 377 yards (87th) and 25.7 points (78th) per contest.

As odd as it may be, North Carolina is looking for its first ACC-opening victory since 2000. But for UNC head coach Butch Davis, avoiding a mark in the loss column is the primary goal on Saturday.

"Clearly, at this stage, you want to win every game," Davis said. "Once you start winning, you want to play well and keep winning. ACC games are important. This conference – especially our side of it – is loaded. We felt that way before the season even started with Georgia Tech coming off nine wins and Virginia Tech and [that] Miami would be dramatically improved…

"But you want to get off to a good start, and hopefully we'll play better in Week 4 than we did in Week 3."

After last season's 21-point loss in Chapel Hill, Georgia Tech second-year head coach Paul Johnson is looking for revenge on Saturday, but he also understands that wanting and actually doing are two entirely different things.

"Personally, I would like to beat North Carolina," Johnson said. "I can't answer for the 120 guys on the team, but I guarantee they want to beat us too. We are not going to win the game by wanting to beat them more. We have to channel that to go out, play harder and more efficiently than them.

"That is the biggest misnomer out there that we are going to win this game because we really want too. They can change that with one lick to the head. Then maybe it is I did not want to win that as much as I thought I did."

The Tar Heels are hoping to build on their first 3-0 start since beginning the 1997 season with eight consecutive victories.

Inside Carolina Top Stories