Twenty years have passed since North Carolina has done what it will attempt to do on Saturday. That’s how long it has been since the Tar Heels began the season with a victory against an opponent from a major conference.
They began the 1997 season with a victory against Indiana, the first of UNC’s record 11 wins that season. Since then UNC has opened the season against a major-conference opponent nine times – and it has lost every time, including the defeat against Georgia in Atlanta to start the 2016 season.
Now comes Saturday, and the season-opener against California at Kenan Stadium. A victory would end the Tar Heels’ dubious streak of futility in games like this one, and it would provide a foundation for a team that has lost nearly every offensive player of significance from last season.
What to expect out of the Tar Heels on Saturday is anybody’s guess. They will have a new starting quarterback – either Brandon Harris, the graduate transfer from LSU, or Chazz Surratt, a second-year freshman – and relatively unknown players throughout the offense, at every position.
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The defense, for once in Larry Fedora’s head coaching tenure, enters the season with fewer questions than the offense. Though perhaps that’s not saying much, either, in the first year under a new defensive coordinator, John Papuchis, who ascended into his position after serving as the team’s linebackers coach the past two seasons.
Meanwhile Fedora, coy as usual when discussing the quarterback situation, said again on Wednesday that he hadn’t decided on a starting quarterback, and he didn’t dismiss the thought, either, of using more than one. Such statements out of Fedora, entering his sixth season as UNC’s head coach, aren’t new.
And yet he has insisted, repeatedly, that there really is no separation between Harris, who gained years of experience at LSU, and Surratt, the former high school All-American who was a cornerstone of UNC’s 2016 recruiting class. Had the competition between them lasted this long because both players have played so well throughout the preseason, or because both have struggled?
“Well, I guess Saturday will determine that, won’t it?” Fedora said, smiling, on Monday. “No, the extension of it has just been because nobody has separated themselves.”
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are seeking some separation of their own. The task ahead of them this season is daunting enough given the personnel losses, and an opening-game defeat would put UNC at serious risk of an 0-2 start, given challenge of a week two game against Louisville.
The road ahead for UNC – there are September games against divisional opponents Duke and Georgia Tech, and an early-October game against Notre Dame – magnifies the importance of the game against Cal. Without an opening-game victory, UNC’s path to bowl eligibility, even, becomes all the more perilous.
Since that long-ago victory against Indiana, though, these are the kinds of games – at the start of a season, against a team from a major conference – that have foiled the Tar Heels again and again. There was the defeat against Virginia to start the 1999 season, and against Florida State in 2003, Georgia Tech in 2005, Rutgers in 2006, LSU in 2010, South Carolina in 2013 and 2015 and Georgia, last season.
This opener doesn’t come with the hype of the recent two against South Carolina, and the one last season against Georgia. All three of those games were nationally-televised on ESPN, and Fedora and his players used all three, to some degree, to promote the idea that those games provided the Tar Heels an opportunity to prove their legitimacy on a national stage.
There has been no such talk leading into this game. For one, it is broadcast on “the ACC Network,” the hodgepodge of local broadcast affiliates that carry the games ESPN rejects. For another, the opponent offers brand-recognition in name only; Cal will enter Kenan Stadium with its own set of concerns, and own questions, after a 5-7 season prompted a head coaching change.
Nonetheless, this opener is as important as any of UNC’s recent season-openers against Georgia or South Carolina. Not so much because of what a victory might mean – though it would represent the end of a long, futile streak – but because of what defeat might portend.