Since almost everything about North Carolina’s football program is a first-time experience for Larry Fedora, the unusual environment surrounding the Tar Heels’ game Saturday at Wake Forest probably is of little significance to the new coach.
But with North Carolina on probation and ineligible for any sort of genuine championship and postseason participation, there will be a case of recurring role reversal in several regional games this season.
This season, the Tar Heels will be viewed by ACC opponents as a spoiler rather than filling their normal role as a rival worthy of a red circle on the schedule.
It’s not that the Deacons don’t want a win in the series as much as ever, of course. That part doesn’t change.
But whether Fedora and his players admit it, they have nothing to lose this season. A big slice of North Carolina’s incentive is raining some of their frustration on ACC and regional opponents, and understandably so.
In contrast, those ACC foes hardly want to look back on a loss to UNC as the game that knocked them out of a bowl bid or a chance to get to Charlotte for the conference championship.
Among the in-state rivals, the odds of winning a divisional ACC title are remote. In the Atlantic Division, both the Deacons and N.C. State are long shots to get past Clemson and Florida State in the jockeying for a trip to Charlotte.
Duke, though apparently improved, is still the likely last-place finisher in the Coastal.
But in all three cases – plus a North Carolina game against ECU on Sept. 22 in Chapel Hill – it’s distinctly possible that a loss to the Heels could turn out to be a deal buster when bowl bids are extended.
It’s not surprising that Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, in preseason, cited the Tar Heels as “maybe the most dangerous team out there.”
“They’re probably going to want to take it all out on every team they play, and they’re hard to deal with as it is,” he said.
If logic holds, the Deacons (1-0 after a win over Liberty) will be favored in only a few more games – Army, Duke, at Maryland, Boston College and perhaps in the final regular-season game in Winston-Salem against Vanderbilt.
The implications are apparent. A loss Saturday and the Deacons could end up 5-7 and no more going to a bowl game than the Tar Heels.