John Bunting's signature victory against Bobby Bowden took place on a Saturday afternoon, which has been the norm at North Carolina – until now. Butch Davis' arrival in Chapel Hill signified a renewed enthusiasm towards football for the school and the evidence is prevalent.
UNC completed Phase I of a three-phase renovation plan for Kenan Stadium in August, and the traffic nightmares and academic criticism that has long prevented the university from hosting a Thursday night game gave way to allow a national stage for both the football program and UNC as a whole.
"Fortunately, ESPN afforded us the opportunity to work this into the schedule with our fall break," Davis said. "Which meant that the academic concern about classes being missed on Thursday and Friday [were avoided] because we're on fall break. There were a lot of people that had a hand in it, and it's one of the pieces of evidence that there's continuing momentum and support for the football program here."
There was talk in the preseason about this game potentially featuring two undefeated teams with ACC title game ramifications on the line. But as it turns out, both programs are stuck in the bottom of their respective divisions. A loss on Thursday for either team will severely damage its postseason hopes.
The Seminoles would fall to 2-5 on the season with road games against Clemson, Wake Forest and Florida still on the docket. North Carolina, on the other hand, needs to post a 7-5 record (thanks to two wins over FCS opponents) to earn a bowl birth. Road trips to Blacksburg, Chestnut Hill and Raleigh remain on the schedule, as well as visits from Miami and Duke.
But the Tar Heels know better than to overlook the Seminoles' losing record. After all, the current players on UNC's roster grew up during FSU's dominance in the 1990s.
"They're still Florida State," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "Florida State's always had talent. They've always got one of the fastest teams in America. They're a team that knows what they're doing. We know their capability."
In a unique contrast, the Tar Heels will trot out the nation's 117th-ranked offense (282.2 ypg) to square off against a Florida State defense that ranks dead-last in the ACC in four different defensive categories – total (226.6 ypg), pass (253.8 ypg), rush (172.8 ypg) and pass efficiency (158.4).
On the flip side of the equation, the Tar Heels boast the league's top defense (237.7 ypg, 14.2 ppg) while the Seminoles will answer with the conference's top offense (426 ypg) and quite possibly the ACC's most dangerous weapon in quarterback Christian Ponder.
The junior signal caller has completed 147-of-217 passes this season for 1,781 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder leads the league in total offense with 317.3 yards per game, good for sixth nationally.
"We haven't seen a quarterback like that since we played Notre Dame and Jimmy Clausen," Burney said. "He's able to throw the ball wherever he wants and put it in spots that no other quarterback can put it in."
Clausen picked apart the Tar Heels to the tune of 31-of-48 passing for 383 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Irish's 29-24 loss in Chapel Hill last October. But the Seminoles realize that the '09 UNC defense is playing on a different level than the '08 edition.
"It's a big challenge for us and we have to execute and play as well as we can if we want to be successful," Ponder told Seminoles.com. "It's a heck of a challenge and it's something that we can show up and shock the world and make a statement because it's a Thursday night game and it's the only game on. So we have an opportunity but a heck of a challenge."
North Carolina is 4-2 in ESPN Thursday night contests, while Florida State is 4-4 in Thursday night road games. And while this game represents UNC's first Thursday game under the lights, it is not the program's first game on this particular day of the week.
The Tar Heels played Bowling Green in a non-ESPN televised game on Thanksgiving morning in 1982 and won, 33-14, at Kenan Stadium.