North Carolina has played some good teams in Larry Fedora's two-plus seasons, but you could argue the Tar Heels haven't really faced a “great” team – however you define it – under Fedora.
In Fedora's first season UNC played just one ranked team – No. 19 Louisville – and last year the Tar Heels played three ranked teams: No. 6 South Carolina, No. 10 Miami (the Hurricanes finished the season unranked) and No. 24 Duke.
So the sample size is small here, and Fedora hasn't often had to prepare the Tar Heels for games against top-10 opponents – and he's never faced a top-5 opponent at UNC. So maybe it's not a surprise that Fedora has made his team's upcoming opponent, East Carolina, sound as formidable as any the Tar Heels have played in his tenure.
We all remember what ECU did against UNC last season. The Pirates left Chapel Hill with a 55-31 victory. The Tar Heels retreated to their locker room, and several players said later that they'd simply overlooked the ECU.
That won't happen on Saturday in Greenville, and it won't happen for a variety of reasons.
Even so, Fedora's praise of the Pirates is noteworthy because, really, he doesn't often spend a lot of time talking about how great an opponent is. He's respectful of opposing teams, sure. And he's never made an upcoming game sound like it might be easy, or given the impression that he thinks his team should win simply by showing up.
But it has been rare, the kind of talk Fedora reserved for ECU during his weekly press conference on Monday. Asked if he’d watched the Pirates’ victory against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Fedora said he had.
“I thought that East Carolina is a really good football team,” he said. “I read all the headlines, how they upset Virginia Tech and I'll tell you what, from the very beginning it was a heck of a game. I mean, offensively, they pretty much could do no wrong in that first quarter. Whatever they did worked. And so they were playing really well with a lot of confidence.
“I don't think they were affected by the crowd or the hype or anything. I thought they went in with a lot of confidence and I thought they played like that the entire game. And defensively, I thought they did a tremendous job throughout the game. And then they were solid in every phase of their kicking game. They've got a punter that's punting it 48 yards a pop. The kicker is kicking the ball in the back of the end zone. So they did some really nice things.”
OK, there was some coach-speak in there. Nothing too over the top.
I asked Fedora next whether this game on Saturday looks more difficult than it did a few weeks ago. He said:
“No, I knew. I remember what last year was like. And I knew that the majority of those guys are back. This is a veteran team. I mean, he's got a lot of guys back and a lot of guys that have played a lot of reps for them. And they are – we knew in the summer, as we started looking at them and preparing. We knew what they were going to have. And we knew they were going to be a really good football team. And they're showing it. They showed it this past week, but it wasn't a surprise to us, to be honest with you.”
Later, someone asked whether ECU was better now than Pirates were when they came into Chapel Hill last season. Fedora said:
“I don't know to rate that but they're better than they were last year. I mean, they're a better football team than they were last year when we played them, I can tell you. Now, I didn't follow them throughout the end of the year, but they were a good football team last year. A really good football team. And played really well against us down in our stadium. And I think if you just look at the Virginia Tech game, and look at our game last year, I mean, they're a good football team. And like I said, he's got a lot of guys that are back. Since I've been following it, and it was four years at Southern Miss and now going into my third season here, this is the best team that I've seen at East Carolina.”
Those are the words to remember right there – the ones about this being the best ECU team Fedora has seen. It's significant because Fedora is no stranger to ECU. He coached against the Pirates every season from 2008-11 when he was the head coach at Southern Miss.
Fedora's teams at Southern Miss went 2-2 against ECU, and the Pirates finished with nine victories in 2008 and 2009. Last season, ECU finished 10-3.
You had to know the Pirates would be pretty good this season. Shane Carden, the fifth-year senior quarterback, is back. So is Justin Hardy. But there were some losses on defense, and plenty of questions about whether ECU could match its success from last season. So far, it looks like the Pirates could exceed it.
Toward the end of Fedora's press conference yesterday, someone asked Fedora if he was worried about the Tar Heels taking the Pirates lightly again, like some UNC players had said last year after that humbling defeat. Fedora didn't seem to know how to react.
He stood there for about five seconds, speechless, looking a bit dumbfounded. Finally, he said, “I hadn't really thought about that, actually. I can't imagine somebody taking somebody lightly after they just beat a ranked opponent. And after they wore you out last year. So I hadn't really thought about that.”
No, he hasn't, it seems. In fact, his words express the exact opposite.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .