North Carolina begins the season against Liberty at Kenan Stadium on Saturday. Chris Lang covers Liberty for The News & Advance in Lynchburg. I asked him some questions about the Flames.
Andrew Carter: Liberty has a couple wins against FBS teams (Eastern Michigan and Ball State) but it has never beaten a Power 5 conference opponent, though it lost by only a field goal against Wake Forest in 2012. What gives Liberty hope that it can stay competitive against North Carolina?
Chris Lang: The hope probably comes from a mix of having a track record of keeping games against FBS opponents close and having veterans in key positions, especially at quarterback and at middle linebacker. Under Turner Gill, Liberty is 0-2 against FBS teams, with the losses coming by a combined 10 points. Granted, neither of those teams (Wake Forest in '12, Kent State in '13) were very good. And everyone on that coaching staff is well aware of what UNC's offense can do when it gets rolling. Liberty scored 17 against Old Dominion last season. Carolina hung 80 on the Monarchs. Liberty's hopes hinge on third-year quarterback Josh Woodrum playing like a veteran and limiting mistakes, and the Flames finding a way to prevent the big play on both defense and special teams. To put it kindly, Liberty's special teams unit was a dumpster fire last season, and considering Carolina's prowess in the kick return game, things could get out of hand very quickly if the Flames aren't sound in that area of the game.
AC: Realistically, though, what would be a good outcome for Liberty?
CL: A good outcome? Keep the game within 20 points and get out of Kenan healthy. Liberty has been on the cusp of making the FCS playoffs for half a decade now, with a stupid loss here or there tripping the Flames up and leaving them on the outside looking in. Realistically, the game on Sept. 6 at Norfolk State is much more important to those hopes than the game at UNC, as much as a stunning upset in Chapel Hill would help put the football program on the map. At the same time, the Flames need to have a good showing to build confidence for the rest of the non-conference schedule.
AC: No disputing there's a pretty wide gap in talent and depth between UNC and Liberty. That said, Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora has seemed genuinely impressed with a few of the Flames' players – quarterback Josh Woodrum and receiver Darrin Peterson included. Can those two play well on this kind of stage and who are some others to know who are best suited to challenge UNC on Saturday?
CL: I think Woodrum can play well on a bigger stage. He's a big kid (6-3, 210) with sneaky athleticism who is entering his third year as a starter. He made his first start in one of the FCS' more intimidating venues at Montana two years ago and threw for more than 300 yards, so I don't think he'll be in awe of the stage Saturday. Peterson has a chance to be one of the best receivers in program history. He's a quick guy with size and good hands who does a good job of getting separation on the outside. A few others to watch include three guys on the offensive line who were preseason all-conference picks in Mitch Hanson, Greg Ray and Jonathan Burgess. And defensively, middle linebacker Nick Sigmon is a fourth-year starter, and free safety Jacob Hagen finished last season with six interceptions and opened this year on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the FCS' top defensive player.
AC: Liberty put up a lot of points at times last season and UNC, of course, favors a fast pace that maximizes scoring chances. Defensively, how comfortable will the Flames be with that kind of tempo and, offensively, would they prefer to try to score as quickly as possible or to slow the pace?
CL: Gill addressed this question Tuesday, and he said for Liberty to have a chance, the Flames need to be able to keep North Carolina's play count closer to 70 than 90, meaning he wants his offense to exhibit some sort of ball control, whether it's in the short passing game or the run game. In Liberty's loss at Kent State last year, the Golden Flashes ran 77 plays. Liberty ran 44. It was a miracle the game was even close. Carolina's offense is obviously more potent than Kent State's and will make LU pay given that sort of free reign. If Liberty only musters 11 first downs, like it did last year in Ohio, Saturday's game could get ugly. The Flames need to minimize three and outs to give their defense a chance to catch its breath.
So there you have it. Thank you, Chris.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter.