Current Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2014 16:21:54 -0400
This time last season, the North Carolina football team was still getting comfortable with coach Larry Fedora’s new playbook, adjusting to an uptempo, no-huddle offense — its season opener still two days away.
A year later, the circumstances surrounding UNC’s season opener are completely different.
Tonight, the Tar Heels will take on No. 6 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium in a night game broadcast on ESPN, a far cry from a 12:30 p.m. kickoff against FCS opponent Elon on the ACC Network in 2012.
And the team knows it.
“It’s an exciting time for college football,” quarterback Bryn Renner said. “No offense to Elon, but I’m really happy we’re playing South Carolina.
“It’s exciting to be a college football player. Growing up, that’s all I wanted to do. You can’t ask for a better atmosphere.”
Opening against South Carolina resurrects a Carolina rivalry that has lain dormant since 2007.
But the animosity between the two teams and their fan bases never completely died down — instead, it simmered until boiling over for the 2013 season opener.
Both teams claim to be ‘the real Carolina,’ a source of great contention for both teams.
“It’s a natural thing,” Fedora said of the rivalry. “It could eventually become a regional type of rivalry, a border war.”
The Tar Heels last met the Gamecocks on opening day in 1988 under the helm of another upstart coach, Mack Brown. The game was Brown’s first as UNC’s head coach, and the Tar Heels lost 31-10 in Columbia, S.C.
Brown finished that season 1-10 but is credited with revitalizing UNC’s football program during his 10-season tenure.
Now 15 years later, Fedora is in a similar situation in his second year at UNC, looking to turn around a mediocre program mired in scandal.
Fedora found success with the Tar Heels’ last season, clinching the Coastal Division. But a bowl-ban prevented UNC from playing for the ACC title.
The trip to Columbia will be the first test for Fedora’s 2013 Tar Heels.
“What an opportunity to showcase who we really are,” Fedora said. “For me, it’s kind of a measuring stick of where we are in year two of the program.”
They’ll be up against a fierce defensive line that, of course, features defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. But there’s also South Carolina offense that flies under the radar. Senior Connor Shaw and redshirt junior Dylan Thompson will split time in coach Steve Spurrier’s two-quarterback system.
The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore to injury and then the NFL draft.
A workhorse, who was South Carolina’s leading rusher last season, Lattimore racked up 662 yards and 11 touchdowns in the nine games he played before going down with a severe knee injury.
South Carolina will also be without wide receiver and punt returner Ace Sanders, who amassed a team-high nine touchdown receptions on 45 catches for 531 yards.
But the Gamecocks return their top receiver, Bruce Ellington, who leads the team with 600 receiving yards on 40 catches, good for seven touchdowns.
The matchup against the Gamecocks is a giant departure from the one a year ago against the Phoenix, but at the end of the day, the Tar Heels are preparing for their top-10 opponent the way they’d prepare for any game.
“I’ll be honest, we’ve prepared the same way,” Fedora said. “Obviously there’s two very different opponents. One’s in the top six in the country and one wasn’t. One was a warm-up game for us really.”
Fedora and his team might have had a warm-up game to ease into the college football season last year, but at 6 p.m. Thursday, they’ll be thrust to center stage, launching Fedora’s second campaign.