In many ways North Carolina has been preparing since the end of last season for the start of this one, and for its game against Georgia on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
The grind of winter conditioning. The spring practices. All of the off-season workouts. The preseason practices. They’ve all been pointing toward one final destination: Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
And yet preparing for Georgia is no easy task – as if it ever would be, given the Bulldogs’ usual talent and stature – under the circumstances. The Bulldogs have a new coaching staff, led by head coach Kirby Smart, and so there’s no real way for UNC to know what’s coming.
There are some personnel questions, too, about Georgia. Is Nick Chubb, the running back who was so dominant last season before a serious knee injury, going to be back to back to his old self on Saturday? What can be expected from Jacob Eason, Georgia’s freshman quarterback who reportedly will start?
The variables there create some challenges. None as daunting, though, as developing a game plan for an opponent that, in some ways, doesn’t exist on film.
The Tar Heels have spent plenty of time studying what Smart did during his defensive coordinator days at Alabama. They’ve gone back and studied the history of Jim Chaney, the Georgia offensive coordinator who recently worked at Pitt, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Yet taking all of those pieces of film and melding them together to come up with a definitive picture of what Georgia will do on Saturday isn’t a simple task. It might be an impossible one.
“The toughest thing in this game is not trying to figure out the personnel,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said on Monday. “It’s trying to figure out schemes. That is by far the most difficult thing that we’re dealing with. And not only just offensively and defensively.
“We’re talking about all the special teams, too. So if you’re not careful you start chasing ghosts, and you start creating more things for your guys to think about. And then the next thing you know they’ve got this head full of stuff and they don’t move around really fast.”
That’s a problematic thought for Fedora: filling his players up with so much information that it slows them down, and forces them to think too much. While preparing for Georgia Fedora and his staff, he said, have tried to do the opposite: limit the information and simplify the approach.
“We want them to play (freely),” Fedora said. “Less is more. … So the fewer things we do in this game, the better chance we’ve got, I believe.”
Fedora was referring, primarily, to his own schemes. Under more usual circumstances – preparing for a game, say, against a team with an established coaching staff, or one that has been around for a while – it’s not as difficult to put together a plan, because a lot of what an opponent does would be there to study.
These, though, are not normal circumstances for UNC, which is preparing for a team with a new head coach and two new coordinators. Mel Tucker, the Georgia defensive coordinator, spent one season working with Smart at Alabama. Before that Tucker spent seven years as an NFL defensive coordinator.
The defense, though, will likely follow Smart’s blueprint, which is identifiable through the study of recent Alabama teams. And yet, as UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky put it on Monday, “he’s going to have probably a lot of tricks up his sleeve, a lot of stuff that he hasn’t shown on film.”
Elijah Hood, the UNC junior running back, said on Monday that some of the Tar Heels’ preparation has amounted to “guesswork.” The coaches and players have gathered plenty of times to study film of Alabama, where Smart was the defensive coordinator for nine years.
And then, inevitably, Hood said, those sessions lead to the question: “How’s he going to translate that to Georgia?”
Like many other questions that surround the Tar Heels, and surround this particular game, that one is impossible to answer before Saturday. The answers will come then, during those three hours, give or take, at the Georgia Dome.
For the past nine months the Tar Heels have been preparing for those three hours, knowing that what happens during them could well define the course of their season. They’ve been preparing without knowing what, exactly, they’re preparing for.