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UNC vs. James Madison: Things to watch

UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week that his team was looking forward to being back in the Tar Pit for its home-opener against James Madison.
UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week that his team was looking forward to being back in the Tar Pit for its home-opener against James Madison. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It was Wednesday after practice and North Carolina coach Larry Fedora was talking about anything other than football. The rape allegation against one of his players. House Bill 2, and its role in the ACC's decision to move its conference championship football game out of Charlotte.

They were real-world conversations, ones with implications well beyond a field. Like many football coaches, though, Fedora's insights don't often stray beyond the game in which he makes his living. He said he couldn't say much about the rape allegation. And he didn't want to say much about HB2.

“Anybody want to talk about the game?” Fedora asked at one point.

UNC on Saturday plays against James Madison at Kenan Stadium. It's the Tar Heels' latest home opener, in terms of the calendar, since 2005. There are far more important things going on in North Carolina these days – both in the state and on UNC's campus – but, quickly, here are some things to watch on Saturday:

1. The Tar Heels' rushing defense vs. James Madison's rushing offense.

Look, the Dukes haven't really played anyone. They're 2-0 after victories against Morehead State and Central Connecticut State. So take that into consideration here. But still: Through two games, James Madison is averaging 405 rushing yards. As Fedora said earlier this week, that'd be difficult to do against air. (At the least, that much running, even against air, might cause some fatigue.) UNC's rushing defense remains a concern, and its defensive line isn't getting any healthier.

2. Whether the Tar Heels continue their dominance against FCS opponents.

This the Tar Heels' sixth game against an FCS opponent during Fedora's tenure. In the previous five games, UNC has won by an average score of 59-15. These games haven't been close, or competitive, and the Tar Heels have usually done a good job of putting them away early – with the lone exception being the 2014 season-opener against Liberty, which hung around into the third quarter. Will it be more of the same today? Or does James Madison make it interesting? The Dukes are ranked among the top 10 in the FCS coaches' poll, and this is likely the best FCS team UNC has played under Fedora.

3. The turnout.

Yeah, yeah. Attendance is an old, tired topic. I know. But it's not an old, tired topic to Fedora and his staff. They care about building a better atmosphere at Kenan Stadium, and a better football culture, however that's defined. That's why the defeat against Georgia earlier this season was more than just a number in the won-loss column. It also hurt the momentum Fedora's program had built last season. Had UNC beaten Georgia, the Tar Heels would have been assured a festive, full(er) crowd at Kenan on Saturday. And yet the Tar Heels are still coming off of an 11-win season. Fedora would never admit it publicly, but he'll have an eye on the crowds this season. Better support is important to him, especially after winning 11 games last season.

See you at Kenan.

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