The list of eye-opening wins in Larry Fedora’s two-plus seasons at North Carolina is a short one. No ranked opponents beaten. A 2-4 record against in-state opponents, with one of those wins over an N.C. State team that went winless in the ACC.
Basically, you’ve got Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last year and … Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last year.
All of which makes Saturday’s visit to East Carolina perhaps the biggest game of Fedora’s tenure at North Carolina, with last year’s season-opener at South Carolina the other contender. The same could also be said of the next three games.
The Tar Heels travel to Clemson, host Virginia Tech and travel to Notre Dame. If the schedule has been light so far, it gets heavier quickly.
“The only stretch I can worry about is East Carolina,” Fedora said. “That is a very big test, I can assure you.”
A win in any of the four would rank among Fedora’s best at North Carolina. In the case of wins at Clemson or Notre Dame, it would unquestionably be the best, and a win in Greenville against an East Carolina team coming off an upset of Virginia Tech would be in the conversation as well.
“Who doesn’t like rivalries? Fedora said. “Who doesn’t like playing teams that dislike each other? I think that’s a good thing.”
So it starts with East Carolina, a program flying high after the win over the Hokies and still holding bragging rights after last season’s 55-31 embarrassment of the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.
As much as Fedora needs a big win for his resume, the Tar Heels need to make the most of this four-game stretch to justify the high regard in which they have been held.
The golden child of national pollsters (the only Coastal Division team in the preseason AP and ESPN top 25s) and Vegas linemakers (at 100/1 to win the national title before the season, the Tar Heels were behind only Florida State and Clemson in the ACC), North Carolina still has to prove its legitimacy after less-than-authoritative wins over Liberty and San Diego State to open the season.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” defensive tackle Ethan Farmer said. “Get out on the road and show everybody in the country how good we are.”
Just how good they are remains an open question, but they’re 2-0 and so far, the Tar Heels have done everything expected of them. Starting this week, it’s time to find out whether they can exceed expectations.
They couldn’t ask for a better litmus test. East Carolina manhandled North Carolina last year, winning the line of scrimmage and beating the Tar Heels at their own high-octane game. Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be a madhouse. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both teams. North Carolina is out for revenge, East Carolina for another win over an ACC team.
And Fedora, now three years in, needs a win that means as much to his fans as East Carolina’s win at Kenan Stadium meant to its own fans last season.
“It’s time,” Fedora declared before the season, and that time has arrived. With a vengeance.