When one thinks of North Carolina athletics, chances are the images that come to mind include powder blue uniforms, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Michael Jordan from the baseline against Georgetown and, well, everything else that goes with Tar Heel basketball. Few schools can rival the basketball tradition that resides in Chapel Hill.
However, while UNC will forever be thought of as a basketball school first, the Tar Heels football team has made a little bit of noise in its own right during the 2008 regular season. In just his second year on the job at North Carolina, former Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis has turned around the former ACC laughingstock.
When WVU and UNC square off in the seventh annual Meineke Car Care Bowl on December 27, both schools will be looking for their ninth win of 2008. Listening to West Virginia's players and coaches talk, it becomes quite apparent that the final game of the season will rank among the toughest.
"They are an ACC school and they are a lot better than what they've been in the past couple years," said West Virginia quarterback Pat White. "They have definitely turned around and they are an up and coming program."
Although the schools have met just once before (a UNC win in the 1997 Gator Bowl), there are certain components of the Tar Heels that West Virginia has seen in the past. Offensively, the Tar Heels resemble a combination of Big East foes, two of which beat WVU this season.
"They have the receivers, the speed and the special teams of Cincinnati," said head coach Bill Stewart. "I think their offensive line are a bunch of big, thug tough guys. I mean that thug as a compliment. They are big, strong strapping guys, like Pitt. Their quarterbacks in the pocket throwing the ball remind me of Mike Teel when he's hot like (he was) at the end of the year. Their running backs remind me of Brown and McCoy. I think their running backs are pretty good."
UNC lost its best player, senior wide receiver Brandon Tate, to a mid-season knee injury. Behind center, the Tar Heels can give a couple of different looks. Sophomore T.J. Yates is more of a drop-back passer, while junior Cameron Sexton has the ability to make plays with his arm and his feet. Yates is expected to be back after missing the past several games with a broken ankle. Davis has not named a starter yet for the bowl game.
In Tate's absence, Charlotte native Hakeem Nicks has proven more than capable of filling the void, hauling in 60 passes for 1,005 yards in 12 games. Nicks, according to WVU coordinator Jeff Casteel, is similar to a Big East standout that has proven to be a thorn in West Virginia's side for the past three seasons.
"He's probably like(Kenny) Britt at Rutgers," Casteel said. "He is a big, strong, physical player that runs very well. They're going to get him the ball in different ways in terms of reverses, and obviously throwing the ball downfield and on screens. I would say he is probably close physically to the Britt kid."
"They have so many athletes that we're going to try to shut down in order to come out with the win," said cornerback Ellis Lankster. "Coach (David) Lockwood has prepared us very well."
Defensively, Stewart sees similarities between the Tar Heels and non-conference foe Auburn. West Virginia defeated the Tigers at Milan Puskar Stadium on October 23.
"They are big, strong get after you just sic ‘em guys," Stewart said. "Remember how big the linebackers used to be at Maryland? That's what these guys look like. I would say Cincinnati's defense with those 10 seniors they had, are very much like (UNC). Their safeties tackle very sure like the South Florida and Pitt safeties have tackled in the past. They are sure tacklers."
Of course there's something to be said for the fact that nobody on North Carolina's roster has faced West Virginia's White and Noel Devine.
From nearly every angle, the teams appear to be even, right down to ticket sales as both schools quickly sold out their 12,500 allotted tickets. As such, it would be logical to expect a close game, with a handful of plays possibly deciding the outcome.
"I think turnovers will be very important," Lankster said. "The defense needs to force turnovers so we can keep the ball in Pat White's hands. As long as we keep the ball in Pat White's hands, we should come out with the win."