Forget, for a moment, what a North Carolina victory against Georgia would do for this particular Tar Heel team, this particular season. No. 22 UNC would rise in the national rankings, yes. It would make believers out of doubters.
In the context of a single season, limited in scope from early September to early January, a UNC victory over the Bulldogs on Saturday night would likely come with powerful ramifications. And yet the ripples of such a victory could extend far beyond the 11 games, and the postseason, that comes after it.
In the days leading into his team’s game against No. 18 Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, UNC coach Larry Fedora has attempted to balance the magnitude of the opportunity before his team with the reality that, yes, it is only one game. Only one-twelfth of a long regular-season grind.
The Tar Heels proved last year, after all, that a humbling season-opening defeat isn’t necessarily a harbinger of bad things to come. UNC followed that sloppy 17-13 loss against South Carolina with 11 consecutive victories and then played for the first time in the ACC Championship game.
And so Fedora has cautioned against assigning too much weight, and significance, to the game against Georgia. History has shown that a defeat won’t sentence the Tar Heels to failure.
“I don’t think it makes or breaks you one way or the other,” Fedora said earlier this week. “I think it’s the way you approach it with your team.
“As a coaching staff, if we put it all on one game, then yeah – that’d be it. But if it doesn’t go the way you want it then you’re putting all your eggs in that one basket, and we don’t do that.”
And yet Fedora understands the other reality, too. He understands that while a loss at the Georgia Dome wouldn’t doom his team, a victory would likely have wide-ranging implications on everything from fan support to an improved atmosphere at Kenan Stadium to more success in recruiting.
To come out with an SEC opponent, ranked in the top 25, both teams playing in a neutral site – those are important games. And we need to win some of those. We’ve had a couple of opportunities in the last couple of years that we haven’t capitalized on.
Entering his fifth season at UNC, Fedora is still trying to change the culture surrounding a program that was, in many ways, reeling when he took over. On the field, he has produced. The Tar Heels last season set a school record with 11 consecutive victories, and overall tied the school record for wins.
Still, energy has often been lacking at Kenan Stadium, where signs of apathy have lingered since the controversial end of Butch Davis’ head coaching tenure. When UNC ran onto the field amid smoke and booming sound effects at the beginning of games last season, Fedora often led a charge into a stadium with more than 10,000 empty seats.
A big opportunity
Enhancing the gameday environment, bringing more life into Kenan – those remain important priorities for Fedora, and for UNC’s athletic department administration. In the context of those challenges, then, the significance of UNC’s game against Georgia likely can’t be overstated.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Rick Steinbacher, a former UNC football player who is now a senior associate athletic director for marketing and football.
As of Thursday, Steinbacher said, UNC had sold more than 31,000 season tickets. That’s an increase of more than 4,000 from the previous year, he said, and the sales numbers have left him “very encouraged.”
The improvement in season ticket sales represents progress. Still, UNC hasn’t approached the kind of fervor that existed at the height of the Davis era, when in 2008, with Notre Dame on the home schedule, Steinbacher said UNC nearly sold out of season tickets.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we get there,” Steinbacher said, “but we’re encouraged by the momentum and the progress we’ve had this year and we’re excited about, hopefully, parlaying that into getting to where we want to be in 2017.”
Next season the Tar Heels play home games against Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Cal. Steinbacher has worked with Fedora, and with athletic director Bubba Cunningham, to try to improve the gameday environment in Chapel Hill. The easiest solution, unquestionably, is winning games – especially the kind of games like the one in front of the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Those kinds of victories have been elusive for UNC. They’ve been even rarer at the start of the season, both because of a lack of opportunities due to scheduling – UNC has opened the season with seven FCS opponents in the past 12 years – and the failure to take advantage of what few opportunities have existed.
We’re not going to be satisfied until we get there, but we’re encouraged by the momentum and the progress we’ve had this year and we’re excited about, hopefully, parlaying that into getting to where we want to be in 2017.
UNC began the 2013 season with a nationally-televised, primetime game at South Carolina, and lost. The Tar Heels began last season in Charlotte against South Carolina, too. Again, UNC played before a national television audience, on the kind of stage that offered the chance to announce an arrival.
And again, the Tar Heels endured a painful defeat. By the time UNC made its resurgence clear last season with an important Thursday night victory at Pittsburgh – the Panthers were nationally ranked at the time and that game was also nationally televised – UNC had just two home games remaining.
A big step
Both last season and in 2013, the Tar Heels walked out of their locker room after their first game hoping to recover. Now, once again, they have an opportunity to build momentum from the start with a victory against an SEC opponent.
“To come out with an SEC opponent, ranked in the top 25, both teams playing in a neutral site – those are important games,” Cunningham said. “And we need to win some of those. We’ve had a couple of opportunities in the last couple of years that we haven’t capitalized on.”
Indeed, it has been a while – a long while – since UNC took advantage of the kind of chance it will have on Saturday. The Tar Heels haven’t opened the season with a victory against an FBS team since 2000, when they defeated Tulsa. They haven’t started the season with a victory against a ranked opponent since 1993.
Steinbacher remembers well UNC’s 31-9 season-opening victory against USC that year. It was the first game of his senior season, and he said he sees “a lot of similarities” between the opportunity that game presented and one facing UNC in Atlanta.
“I see a ton of similarities,” Steinbacher said. “Again, there were was a lot of positive momentum at the time, in terms of the program, in terms of winning, in terms of recruiting.
“In terms of ticket sales, and just overall buzz around the program. And we were opening up the season on a national stage against a program with a ton of tradition and a ton of history.”
UNC finished that 1993 season, Mack Brown’s sixth as the head coach, with a 10-3 record. Ultimately, that propelled the Tar Heels to greater success – and the success of that season began with a victory against USC, which came in Anaheim, not far from USC’s campus.
The circumstances will be similar for UNC in Atlanta. The Tar Heels are playing against Georgia at a “neutral site” that’s only about an hour from Georgia’s campus in Athens.
It is but one game – and not even a conference game at that – and Fedora has been quick to make the point that what happens on Saturday won’t affect his team’s goals. Long term, though, the result could have a great effect on his program, its perception and the atmosphere that will surround it.
When UNC plays its first home game on Sept. 17 against James Madison, Fedora will want to see a packed Kenan Stadium. He will want to see the same thing every time the Tar Heels run out of their home tunnel, smoke in their eyes, noise in their ears.
“So yes,” he said, considering Saturday’s role making that desire a reality. “This would be big in taking another step towards that.”
UNC vs. Georgia
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta