The question, right there in the above headline, is clear enough for North Carolina entering its game on Saturday against Georgia in Atlanta: Is this UNC’s most important season-opener in school history?
The case can be made for a variety of reasons. Among them:
▪ The Tar Heels are coming off of an 11-win season and need to keep that momentum going.
▪ UNC fought a perception problem last year in that it didn’t have a marquee win. This would be one.
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▪ Opportunities like this – starting a season on this kind of stage, against this kind of opponent – are quite rare.
▪ If UNC is going to enhance its football culture, it has to win games like these.
▪ A victory could announce the Tar Heels’ arrival as a national contender.
Still, it is but one game. UNC coach Larry Fedora has made that point. He said earlier this week that it won’t make or break the Tar Heels’ season. He said the result on Saturday wouldn’t even affect his team’s goals, which have to include winning the Coastal Division for the second consecutive season.
And that’s all true. A loss won’t doom UNC. The Tar Heels proved as much last year, when they won 11 consecutive games after a season-opening defeat against South Carolina. And a win won’t make the Tar Heels’ season, either. Especially if they’d fail to build off of it.
Still, it’s rare that a team encounters a game that feels so much like it could represent a launching pad to greater things. That’s what this game looks like for UNC – like it could be a significant catalyst. Not only this season, but well beyond this season, with a lasting effect on culture, atmosphere and recruiting.
All of those intangibles, all central to the long-term health of a college football program, stand to improve significantly with a UNC victory on Saturday night. This is certainly the most important season-opener of Fedora’s coaching tenure, which is entering its fifth season.
And it’s probably UNC’s most significant season-opener in more than 20 years, dating to its 31-9 victory against No. 18 USC to open the 1993 season. There’s no shortage of similarities between that game and this one on Saturday.
USC was ranked 18th, like Georgia is. That game in 1993 was played in Anaheim, at a “neutral site” close to USC’s campus. This one on Saturday will be played in Atlanta, at a “neutral site” close to Georgia’s campus.
Back then UNC was entering the sixth season under a head coach, Mack Brown, who was seeking to set a higher standard. And on Saturday UNC will be entering its fifth season under Fedora, who is seeking to set a higher standard.
“I see a lot of similarities,” Rick Steinbacher said.
He was a senior captain on that 1993 team. Now he’s a senior associate athletic director at UNC, overseeing marketing and football.
“I think a lot like this game, most people were picking the other team,” Steinbacher said earlier this week. “In fact, I think a lot of people didn’t give us much credit. And we went out there, we won, and it was just an awesome experience, it was an awesome win, and then we went on to win 10 games that year. And I think having that much success early really provided a great springboard for us into the rest of the season.”
More than two decades later, UNC’s 1993 season-opening victory against USC is recognized as one of the most important victories of Brown’s tenure. A Tar Heels’ victory on Saturday night in Atlanta could very well leave the same kind of legacy.