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UNC vs. Georgia: It's game day, and five things to watch

A North Carolina exhibit at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
A North Carolina exhibit at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. rwillett@newsobserver.com

On the streets of Atlanta on Friday we encountered a Mario (of super Mario Bros. fame), two strange-looking characters from one of the Star Wars movies (somewhere in Episodes 1 through 3, I'm guessing) and a Joker – Heath Ledger version – who also happened to be our waitress.

What did I tell you guys about Dragon Con? It's coinciding with the first college football opening weekend of the season here in Atlanta, where North Carolina plays against Georgia on Saturday. We also, by the way, encountered Uga the Bulldog – the Georgia mascot.

It was really him, authentic and huffing and puffing. No word if he was here for Dragon Con.

Friday was an interesting day. A tour of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff/Peach Bowl offices just outside of the city. Gary Stokan was kind of enough to show me and ABC11's Mark Armstrong around the place a little bit and, somehow, we wound up with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff trophy on our heads.

It's a leather helmet. Which inspired Mark, one of the funniest members of the Triangle sports media corps, to come up with leather-helmet-era football nicknames for us all. I'm Axe Handle Carter. He's Iron Jaw Armstrong. The talented NandO photographer Robert Willett is Winter Wind.

Charlie Mickens, the intrepid ABC11 reporter/cameraman, is Minefield. Cross his path and he'll blow you up.

After a half-slab lunch at Fat Matt's, we made it in the afternoon to the College Football Hall of Fame, where the people running it seem stoked for the beginning of college football season. A big, bright interlocking “NC” greeted visitors when they walked through the doors there.

Then on Friday night we were at The Vortex – Iron Jaw, Winter Wind, Minefield and me – where they like to claim that they serve the best burgers in Atlanta. They will find no argument from Axe Handle. The Joker (Heath Ledger version) told us that half a million extra people are in town this weekend.

They're here from all over, some for Dragon Con, some for a Pride weekend and, yes, tens of thousands of visitors are here for what transpires later on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, where the Tar Heels will play one of the most anticipated season-openers in school history.

Before we get into the game, a look back at everything I've written this week leading into Saturday. We'll go in order, from Monday through now:

-50 things I'm looking forward to covering about this particular UNC football team.

-Larry Fedora and the “less is more” approach he and the staff took in their preparation.

-If Fedora's being coy on injuries, it's football season.

-A story I really enjoyed reporting and writing about Elijah Hood's Eagle Scout roots.

-An interview with Hood on many interesting subjects – including his affinity for collisions.

-Chip Towers, Georgia beat writer extraordinaire, lent his insight from the Georgia side.

-The moment of truth is here for UNC's run defense, which at least one coach is tired of talking about.

-A ranking of UNC's road trips this season (note: it doesn't get any better than this one).

-Mack Hollins' absence in the first half on Saturday creates some challenges for UNC.

-Is this the most important season-opener in school history? It's in the conversation.

-And finally: UNC-Georgia only one game – but could be so much more for Tar Heels.

It's been a busy week. It's a been a fun week, as a reporter, because of the anticipation and build-up. It's not often that UNC has started a college football season this way.

Sure, there was the South Carolina game last year, and the one in 2013. The enthusiasm surrounding this one, though, exceeds what existed for those. The Tar Heels on Saturday have an opportunity, as I wrote in one of the above-linked stories, that doesn't often come around. A victory on Saturday counts just once in the standings but it would benefit UNC over and over again in other areas.

In generating interest. In ticket sales. In recruiting. In the intangible, but important, idea of program momentum and perception. Larry Fedora has said that one game won't make or break his season, and he's right. He has said that this game won't even affect his team's season goals. But he knows it affects the overall, long-term goals he has for his program.

Enough jibber-jabber. Five things to watch/consider/think about on Saturday when UNC and Georgia kick off:

1. The UNC defense.

Pretty simple here, and obvious enough. The run defense has been a focal point througout the preseason. When last we saw it, the Tar Heels were in the midst of giving up 645 yards against Baylor. Now UNC is facing Georgia and running back Nick Chubb, who was among the best running backs in the country before the serious knee injury he endured last October. Chubb is expected to start. It seems like he'll get a lot of carries. The Tar Heels' effectiveness here could well decide the outcome. They believe they're ready. Tray Scott, UNC's defensive line coach, seemed sick of talking about the run defense earlier this week. “We work on it and the guys have the will to fix it,” he said, brusquely, when asked yet another question about it. Now the time has come.

2. The overall complexity of the defense.

Fedora and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik have provided hints throughout the preseason of an expanded, more complex defense. UNC rarely strayed from the base concepts of Chizik's defense a season ago. That was understandable, given it was Chizik's first as UNC's defensive coordinator. Now, supposedly, the defense is more robust than it was. The players are more familiar, more comfortable with the scheme, and that, the theory goes, gives Chizik the chance to be more creative in how he calls a game. Elijah Hood recently said that Chizik is opening up “Pandora's Box” for this game. What's that mean, exactly? We'll find out on Saturday afternoon.

3. Mitch Trubisky in his first start.

Trubisky has been waiting, what – four years for this? Now it's finally here: His first college start. He is, at last, the unquestioned leader of the offense – just like he expected to be not long after he arrived at UNC. Intstead it has been a long wait for him. A redshirt season his freshman year. Two years of playing here and there, just enough to taste success and show what he could do, while backing up Marquise Williams. And now this: starting his first college game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, against Georgia. Saturday is likely to be a long wait, too, until kickoff. My two main questions about Trubisky: How's he handle the inevitable nerves? How's he respond after taking a big hit? Those are coming, too.

4. Georgia's offense under quarterback Greyson Lambert.

After much speculation about whether Jacob Eason would start at quarterback for Georgia in his first college game, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart went with the safe choice – if it can described as such – in Greyson Lambert, who has been solid but far from spectacular. Lambert transferred to Georgia from Virginia, where he played twice against UNC, in 2014 and 2013. In 2014, Lambert threw two interceptions against one of UNC's worst defenses in school history. He completed exactly half of his passes (20 for 40) for 261 yards, and also threw two touchdowns in Virginia's 28-27 loss. In UNC's 45-14 victory against Virginia in 2013, Lambert completed eight of his 13 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. So UNC has seen Lambert before. This particular version of UNC's defense hasn't. But if Lambert couldn't really take advantage of the one of worst UNC defenses in school history, is there reason to believe he'll be better on Saturday? And might we still see Eason?

5. Special teams and turnovers.

There are no preseason games in college football. No opportunity to work out any problems in a real, game-like setting. The closest thing to that is a scrimmage, and scrimmages don't come close to replicating the kind of environment UNC will enter on Saturday. Here's what Fedora said earlier this week about the prospect of sloppiness in an opening game: “If you go back and look after this first week, you're going to look all across the country – it's going to be special teams and it's going to be turnovers that are going to be the biggest differences in all these first week games. And that's just year after year after year of experience of it. The first week of games, that's where your mistakes, a lot of mistakes, are made.” Look at last season for instance. If not for those three interceptions, one of them in the end a few zone yards away from a go-ahead touchdown, UNC wins.

So there you have it. Almost time for Winter Wind Willett and I to head to the Georgia Dome.

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