It is another one of those so-called “measuring stick” games for North Carolina, and yet in many ways the Tar Heels already understand how they measure up – in ways easily quantifiable, at least – against Florida State.
The Seminoles are bigger. And faster. Presumably they’re stronger. They have more talent, based on prospect evaluations during recruiting – and the disparity is so wide that their backups, overall, were more coveted players coming out of high school than UNC’s starters.
Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, understands all of this. More than once this week, leading into his team’s game on Saturday at No. 12 Florida State, he has referenced the Seminoles’ awesome talent, and their propensity year after year to attract it and develop it, recruiting cycle after recruiting cycle.
And yet Fedora’s task is to find a way, anyway. To compete, and to win, disadvantages be damned.
“We know a lot about their personnel because we recruit a lot of those guys,” Fedora said earlier this week. “We know what type of athletes they are and what kind of talent they’ve got. But you’ve still got to go out and play.”
Last season was one of ascent for the Tar Heels. They won 11 games, as many as they’d ever won in school history, and they won the Coastal Division and played in the ACC championship game.
We know what type of athletes they are and what kind of talent they’ve got. But you’ve still got to go out and play.
UNC coach Larry Fedora on Florida State
And yet their climb is hardly complete. In some ways it’s just beginning. They will enter Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday unranked, a double-digit underdog, according to the oddsmakers, and haven’t beaten a top-15 team on the road in 15 years.
UNC began the season hoping to build on what it accomplished last fall. A sloppy season-opening defeat against Georgia dampened some of those hopes, and now the Tar Heels still seek the kind of brand-name victory that has eluded them for so long.
Saturday offers another opportunity. To capitalize, the Tar Heels must defeat a team with considerably more advantages: a proud history, a long tradition, an established football culture and a wide and strong recruiting base that annually leaves the Seminoles’ roster stockpiled with talent.
“They can get anybody they want in the country,” said Ryan Switzer, a UNC senior receiver. “So that’s not an issue for them.”
Switzer, a native of West Virginia, is among a select group of UNC players who could have gone to Florida State. After he committed to UNC, he said, the Florida State coaching staff increased its interest and tried to entice Switzer to come to Tallahassee, Fla.
He said it was difficult to say no. The allure of playing for the Seminoles enamored him, as it does so many others, but he remained true to his commitment. Now he’s on the other side, and on Saturday he’ll attempt to do his part to help the Tar Heels defeat the most formidable opponent on their schedule.
Switzer understands the task ahead is difficult. He bristles, though, at the mention of the perceived talent gap between the Seminoles and the Tar Heels.
“I know a lot of guys in my class who were five-stars, four-stars, ranked ahead of me and haven’t panned out,” Switzer, a three-star prospect coming out of high school, said of recruiting rankings. “So recruiting is important but the stars and all that – it’s about getting the guys that you need for your system, no matter what they’re ranked. If they can play ball, they can play ball.”
Because of its location and tradition – and coaching, facilities and other attributes – Florida State has possessed a natural recruiting advantage for decades. Even so, since the Seminoles’ 1990s reign of ACC supremacy ended, they’ve been vulnerable.
UNC stunned Florida State in 2001, when the Tar Heels prevailed in a 41-9 victory that remains one of highlights of their football history. The last time UNC played against Florida State, the Tar Heels left Tallahassee in 2010 with a memorable 37-35 victory.
The circumstances surrounding both programs were different then. Florida State was in the first season of Jimbo Fisher’s head coaching tenure. UNC, it turned out, was in the final season of Butch Davis’ head coaching tenure.
This time, the Tar Heels will arrive in Tallahassee on more of an upward overall trajectory. They’re seeking a victory that would legitimize their belief that they’re a contender in the ACC, and beyond.
Studying Louisville’s win
A year ago Fedora and his players set the goal of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division. After accomplishing that, one of their goals this season is to win the conference championship game.
A defeat against the Seminoles on Saturday wouldn’t end those hopes. But to make them a reality, the Tar Heels will, at some point, have to beat a highly-ranked opponent from the Atlantic Division – whether it’s Florida State, Clemson or Louisville.
Clemson and Louisville are ranked among the top five teams nationally. Florida State was there, too, before its one-sided defeat at Louisville two weeks ago. The Tar Heels have closely studied Louisville’s victory.
The Cardinals possess some natural advantages – particularly their level of talent, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson – that UNC can’t replicate. But it can replicate aspects of Louisville’s game plan, like the Cardinals’ relatively quick offensive pace.
Louisville ran 66 offensive plays, the highest number Florida State has surrendered. The Tar Heels’ offensive tempo, always a point of emphasis, will be especially important on Saturday against the most formidable defensive line they’ll encounter.
“When you can go fast at times, and maybe get them on their heels, or get them tired – that’s a huge advantage for us,” said Chris Kapilovic, the UNC offensive coordinator. “And I don’t think it’d be an advantage to play them and huddle up and go slow and let them just be able to tee off on you every snap.”
UNC’s offensive line will face its most significant challenge against the Seminoles’ defensive front. And yet that position group has plenty of company, because none will have it easy against Florida State.
The defense, for instance, is tasked with limiting Dalvin Cook, one of the fastest running backs in the country. Even so, some UNC players don’t think it’d be an upset if they won.
“If you ask me, I don’t think it’s a gap,” Des Lawrence, the senior UNC cornerback, said earlier this week. “I feel like we can go up there and beat them. And I think if we do everything we’ve got to, preparing this week – we’ll get that done.
“But they definitely have the historical background behind themselves.”
For the sake of clarity, Lawrence was asked if he’d consider a UNC victory to be an upset.
“Oh, no – no,” he said. “I mean, I think that any time we step on the field, we’re expecting to win. So it’s not really an upset to us. Nationally, it would be an upset because of who they are, and who we are. But to me, no, it’s not an upset.”
That confidence has its roots in what Lawrence and his older teammates experienced a year ago – the 11 consecutive victories, the Coastal Division championship, the respectable performance in defeat against Clemson in the ACC championship game. Still, even amid all of those accomplishments, UNC’s critics pointed to its schedule. They asked: Who have the Tar Heels beaten?
A victory against Georgia, which has stumbled since the first week of the season, would have eased some of those questions. They still remain, though – and will until the Tar Heels pass the kind of test that awaits in Tallahassee.
UNC at No. 12 FSU
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
TV: ESPN, 106.1-WTKK