Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. LSU

ATLANTA – The North Carolina football program pulled out of Chapel Hill on Friday morning minus 15 players, but Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant were eventually cleared and caught a later flight as the Tar Heels prepare for Saturday's Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against No. 21 LSU (8pm/ABC).

The 18th-ranked Tar Heels have been embroiled in a NCAA investigation over the past seven weeks, but it wasn't until Friday morning that the university officially announced that at least 12 players would be unavailable for Saturday's game.

Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, cornerback Charles Brown, cornerback Kendric Burney, wide receiver Greg Little, defensive end Michael McAdoo, defensive end Robert Quinn and safety Deunta Williams have all been ruled ineligible against LSU. Austin, Little and Quinn are tangled up in the NCAA's investigation into improper benefits/contact with sports agents, while Brown, Burney, McAdoo and Williams play roles in the recently discovered academic probe.

Tailback Shaun Draughn, defensive end Linwan Euwell, safety Brian Gupton, tailback Ryan Houston, safety Da'Norris Searcy and safety Jonathan Smith are also being withheld from the game as their involvement into the academic misconduct prong continues on a case-by-case basis. No determination has been made on the length of any of the suspensions.

"We're obviously very disappointed to learn that the actions of a number of our student-athletes have resulted in their being unable to compete in Saturday's game," North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour said in a prepared statement Friday morning.

What was supposed to be the most highly-anticipated football season in recent memory for the Tar Heels has now turned into the most embarrassing chapter in school history. Wisconsin ('00) and Florida State ('07) were both plagued with football academic scandals that were more widespread than North Carolina's current situation, but those programs did not have the added element of agent issues attached to their NCAA investigations.

As it stands now, the Tar Heels will be without eight starters against LSU, including six on what was once considered arguably the nation's best defense. Defensive tackles Tydreke Powell and Quinton Coples and middle linebacker Kevin Reddick were the lone members of the expected starting lineup that left Chapel Hill on Friday morning, but North Carolina fans were able to breath a huge sigh of relief when senior linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant were cleared Friday night.

Sophomore Donte Paige-Moss and true freshman Kareem Martin are expected to man the defensive end positions, while North Carolina's vaunted linebacker corps remains intact. The secondary suffered the biggest blow on Friday with five defensive backs being shelved on Saturday. Junior Matt Merletti and sophomore Gene Robinson are the likely replacements at safety, and sophomore Mywan Jackson and true freshman Tre Boston are the likely starters at cornerback.

Sophomore Jhay Boyd will assume Little's role at wide receiver and fifth-year senior Johnny White will get his first start at running back since '07 in filling Draughn's spot in the offensive backfield.

North Carolina head coach Butch Davis has spent the better part of the last two weeks moving a host of players around the depth chart in an attempt to get as many as possible ready for game action on Saturday. The fourth-year head coach commended his roster for not getting caught up in the distractions on Thursday afternoon.

"Our coaching staff has asked our players, ‘Look – just stay focused, come to practice, watch film, try to create as normal an environment as possible,'" Davis said. "To be honest with you, with all of the rumors and speculation and all of those things that have hovered around for the better part of six-to-seven weeks, I think our kids have done a good job. They've put everything in perspective. They've come to practice during training camp and they've worked hard."

The one person that may benefit the most from Friday's suspensions is LSU head coach Les Miles, who enters his sixth year in Baton Rouge on the hot seat after posting a 17-9 record over the past two seasons.

"We are truly focused on us and what we can do to make our chances in that game best," Miles told the Shreveport Times on Wednesday night. "I don't care which 11 (Tar Heels) show up. I really don't."

The national media has already written North Carolina off against LSU, and it's difficult to blame them. But the Tar Heels practiced all training camp under the assumption that Austin and Little would be unavailable for the season opener. The late arrival of Carter and Sturdivant is sure to provide UNC with a colossal dose of adrenaline and positive momentum, not to mention giving the Tar Heels 12 returning starters from last season's 8-5 squad.

After all, it's not as though North Carolina is playing Alabama or Florida – the Tigers have lost nine of their 17 conference games under Les Miles. But even so, a Tar Heel victory on Saturday would still go down as possibly the biggest upset in school history.

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