By Eddy Landreth
The season will not end with the final seconds of Saturdayâ€™s 12:30 p.m. home game against Virginia Tech, nor does it start with this test against the Hokies.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt this game could make a huge difference when all is said and done for 2012.
â€œThis is definitely going to be a measuring stick for us,â€ said running back Giovani Bernard, who suffered a concussion early in the game at Blacksburg, Va., last season.
The coaches and players on this team wanted to win the first five games of the Larry Fedora era, but there have been lessons learned in this transition year. So far the Tar Heels are 3-2 overall, 0-1 in the ACC.
Understanding how to concentrate consistently has been one of the biggest and most important of those lessons. A mental letdown in the fourth quarter led to a loss at Wake Forest, and a total mental bust in the first half against Louisville coast UNC that game.
In the last two games, however, the Tar Heels came ready to play and maintained their concentration throughout. They won both games, each at home.
This game will be this seasonâ€™s first against a division opponent. The Hokies (3-2, 1-0) have dominated the Coastal Division since they joined the league and the ACC split into two divisions for football.
Winning this game could set a tone for the remainder of the season for UNC and propel the Tar Heels to first place in the division eventually.
This is also a huge opportunity to accomplish what Fedora, his coaching staff and Bubba Cunningham, the new director of athletics, are attempting with the football program. They are trying to rebuild from the bitter disappointment of off-field issues the last three seasons, problems that led to the first NCAA sanctions at UNC in five decades.
Part of their goal is recapturing the hearts of the fans, which begins by winning games at home and doing so in an exciting fashion.
â€œItâ€™s a conference game, and theyâ€™re coming into Kenan Stadium to play in the Tar Pit,â€ Fedora said. â€œWeâ€™ve got to defend this place. Weâ€™re trying to build something about playing at home and what it means.
â€œWe want to continue with what weâ€™ve done, and it is very important to us to build this program to where we want it to be.â€
In an attempt to further engage the fans, the school will hold a â€œWhite Outâ€ on Saturday at Kenan. Fedora and school officials are encouraging the fans to wear all white. In turn, the team will do the same, wearing white helmets with the traditional Carolina blue interlocking â€œNCâ€ on the sides.
This past week the Tar Heels wore an American flag shaped in the form of the interlocking â€œNCâ€ on the playersâ€™ helmets and on the logo at midfield as the school honored U.S. military personnel.
â€œIf you feel good, you play good â€¦ â€ Bernard said. â€œFor us, we had been doing the same old kind of concept, with the Carolina-blue jerseys. Weâ€™re just switching it up a little bit. Coach Fedora changed it up last week with the American flag on the center logo. That was something new. Just that helped us a get a little bit of an edge with excitement for the players.â€
This isnâ€™t to suggest the flag made the difference in Carolina setting a school record for points in the 66-0 victory against Idaho. It was not the reason for the teamâ€™s second shutout of the year, or for the Tar Heels extending their streak of not allowing a touchdown at Kenan to 12 quarters.
The talent left behind by Butch Davis and what is on campus from Fedoraâ€™s first class is the biggest reason for that. Another is the attitude this team adopted by deciding from the beginning to do what Fedora and his staff asked of it.
This attitude helped when coaches and players had to adjust after some bad habits from last season resurfaced with inconsistent concentration. The victory against Idaho may not present valid evidence for many people, but the way the Tar Heels handled East Carolina with ease the week before should represent how well these players have listened to what Fedora and his staff have taught.
Saturday will bring a whole different challenge, however.
Once the Hokies got past coach Frank Beamerâ€™s first six seasons in Blacksburg, Va., they gradually became a national contender and one of the most fundamentally sound football teams in the country.
A year ago Clemson defeated Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game, but the Hokies were there to play for the title â€“ again.
When the league went to 12 teams originally and adopted a playoff game, nearly all the media and fans were certain Florida State and Miami would meet in a rematch for the championship each season. That made sense, given how those two had dominated college football from the mid-1980s until just past the turn of the century. The 2001 Hurricanes may still be the best collegiate team in history.
But one group who did not believe in this scenario was Beamer, the Hokies and their fans. Now that they have made their vision a reality, the Hokies have become the hurdle Carolina and all other ACC teams must scale if they wish to play in the Orange Bowl.
While the Tar Heels cannot go bowling this season because of NCAA sanctions, a victory this week against Virginia Tech would still help Fedora and the program build for the future. It would also give Carolina a chance to finish atop the Coastal Division this season.
â€œWe want to be Coastal Division champs, so we are going to go out there and approach it that way,â€ Fedora said.
The Tar Heels cannot roll back the standings on Saturday, but they can create a fresh start toward what they hope will be a memorable finish to Fedoraâ€™s first season as head coach.
â€œWe still have a season ahead of us,â€ Bernard said. â€œWeâ€™re still able to go out there and show everyone what we can do. I really want to show everyone I can play against an elite team, not just Idaho or the Elon kind of games.â€