UNC-South Carolina could be most important game of Larry Fedora’s tenure with Tar Heels

The last time North Carolina began a season with the kind of victory it will seek against South Carolina on Thursday night in Charlotte, some members of its freshmen class hadn’t yet been born. Others were in diapers.

The Tar Heels began the 1997 season with a victory against Indiana – not all that memorable of an accomplishment given the Hoosiers’ place in college football history. Still, that’s the last time UNC started a season with a victory against an opponent from a so-called Power 5 conference.

Even UNC’s oldest players would have been too young to remember much, if anything, about the 1997 season. And so any knowledge of it comes second-hand, by way of reading up on UNC’s football past or by stories passed down from an older generation.

UNC’s relative football glory of the mid-1990s becomes more distant every year.

“Honestly, I have no clue,” Marquise Williams, UNC’s fifth-year senior quarterback, said earlier this week when asked when the Tar Heels last began the season with a victory against a major conference opponent.

Told that UNC has lost seven consecutive season-openers against major-conference opponents since that 1997 victory, Williams said, “’97 – oh, man. Mack Brown was around?”

Indeed he was. Brown left for Texas at the end of that season, before UNC won its 11th game with a victory against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. Since then, the Tar Heels haven’t won more than eight games in any season.

That’s another drought UNC will attempt to end, but first things first: South Carolina. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to consider it among the most important games – if not the most important – of Larry Fedora’s coaching tenure at UNC.

The significance of the start of this season has been magnified by what happened at the end of the last, when UNC lost two ugly, lopsided games against N.C. State and Rutgers. After losing to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl, players spoke of a fractured locker room and toxic team chemistry.

The Tar Heels finished 6-7 – the second consecutive season that the win total declined from the year before. UNC won eight games in Fedora’s first season, then seven games, then six. A victory against South Carolina, then, could reestablish a positive direction.

Fedora attempted to address that – as much as he could, anyway – after last season ended. He asked players to share their grievances. He emphasized more team-building activities and unity. Repairing that broken chemistry was a priority.

“And so I feel pretty comfortable about where this program is and where we’re going,” he said earlier this week. “I really am. I’m excited about the future, and the guys that we have on this team and the recruiting that we’ve done. I’m really excited about the future.”

UNC’s future, though, is likely to be defined in a significant way by what happens now. And, specifically, by what happens against South Carolina, which opened the 2013 season with a 27-10 victory against the Tar Heels.

That game, like this one, came on a Thursday night to start the season. That game was broadcast to a national audience on ESPN, like this one will be. And that one defined the first half of the Tar Heels’ season.

This one could well have a similar effect.

“It’s huge,” Jeff Schoettmer, the senior linebacker, said earlier this week. “More so just for the morale of the team and the way we want to start off our season. We have high expectations for ourselves this year. High goals. And just to win versus an SEC opponent to start the year would just be great for us.

“It’ll be a great measuring stick as to where our defense is.”

UNC’s hope is that it’s in a lot better place than it was a season ago, when the defense was among the worst in school history. UNC surrendered at least 40 points in six games. Allowing long plays – ones that went for 40, 50 yards – became a weekly habit.

Fedora hired Gene Chizik, who won a national championship in the 2005 season as a defensive coordinator at Texas and won another in 2010 as the head coach at Auburn, to rebuild UNC’s defense. He has been attempting to do that since he arrived in January, all without the benefit of really knowing how the reconstruction project is going.

“Probably not,” he said when asked if there was any way to know, before Thursday, where the defense stands.

“You do not have any idea where you’re truly at until the lights come on, it’s a nationally televised game and you watch these guys respond,” he said. “We can have our best guess. But I’ve been fooled a lot of times.”

The Tar Heels’ football faithful can relate. This is a program that was on the cusp of becoming a year-in, year-out national contender before Brown left at the end of the ’97 season. Former coach Butch Davis appeared to have UNC in position for a breakthrough before his tenure imploded amid an NCAA investigation in 2010.

On a smaller scale, UNC entered each of the past two seasons with high hopes, too. That opening loss against South Carolina in 2013 served as a prelude to a 1-5 start, and a year ago the Tar Heels entered the season ranked before losing four of their first six games.

And now comes another fresh start. Another chance to break one streak – the seven consecutive season-opening defeats against major-conference opponents – that could put it in position to win more than eight games for the first time in 18 years. But first things first.

“There’s not too much hype around football at this school,” Williams said. “We could start it right Thursday night with a win, just to get people coming back. We talk about we don’t get too many fans in the stadium – we’ve got to win football games to get fans in the stadium.”

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