UNC Beat: Larry Fedora Will Give You Wings

We are now a little more than a week away from the first college football game of the season, with five games kicking off at 7:00 PM eastern on Thursday, August 30.  Finally, the offseason press conferences, preseason prognostication, and whatever it is you do on Saturdays without football on television are almost behind us.  This is probably bad news for your family and the pantry supply, but it is great news for our collective psyche as sports fans.

Here are some things Tar Heels fans (or those covering their football team in 2012) will be talking about throughout the season. Some are the things that, well, UNC fans always talk about, while others are more specific to this season.  Hopefully, after you’ve read this, you will have nodded at least once and scratched your chin at least once.  If not, I have failed you.

LARRY FEDORA WILL GIVE YOU WINGS: Coaches tend to be the figureheads for college sports teams.  As much fun as it will be for Virginia Tech fans to watch Logan Thomas attempt to duplicate his 30 touchdown season from 2011, his time in Blacksburg is limited.  Coaches, like diamonds, are forever, or at least until they start looking more like costume jewelry than actual diamonds.

So you’ve heard it all before. Mike London was once a detective.  Dabo Swinney once clarified South Carolina’s rank in relation to his Clemson Tigers with a sound bite that included the words “Tweet that.” Jimbo Fisher is trying to return Florida State to its former glory experienced under predecessor Bobby Bowden.

Now, UNC can add “Larry Fedora is a livewire who could convince you to run through a brick wall while chugging a (sugar-free!) Red Bull and smashing the empty can against his head,” to that list.  It’s going to be cute for now.  It’s going to be fun for UNC fans.  It might even actually possess you to run through a brick wall (speaking as someone who ACED a final exam mere hours after hearing Fedora’s first press conference as North Carolina head football coach in December).

But it will get old when that’s the only thing people ever know to say when talking about Larry Fedora.  Never mind the no-huddle offense, the opportunistic defense (FUN FACT: Southern Miss broke a 40-year old FBS record with eight interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2011), or that he didn’t have a single season under .500, either overall or in Conference USA play, while at Southern Miss.  The man loves him some Red Bull.

BATTERING RAMS: Speaking of Fedora’s opportunistic defense, there are some playmakers on that side of the football for his first team in Chapel Hill.  The defense does lose guys like Quinton Coples and Zach Brown, but this will give opportunities for others like Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams to shine.

Perhaps more importantly, members of a secondary that was 10th in the ACC in pass defense last season will be working with another year of experience.  Junior Tre Boston will return to his natural position at strong safety after two seasons at free safety, the first of which largely forced by the suspensions throughout the Tar Heels roster in 2010.  Senior Gene Robinson will be what the UNC staff is calling the “ram,” a hybrid linebacker-defensive back position as part of the new 4-2-5 defensive scheme.  Robinson is quoted in one Raleigh News & Observer article as saying he will enjoy the opportunity to take more chances this season without the concerns he had of being the last line of defense as a safety last season.

It likely won’t be perfect when North Carolina takes the field against Elon on September 1. Mistakes will be made, and there will be miscommunication and missed chances.  Nevertheless, the defense should be much more fun to watch than last year’s unit.  Especially more fun than watching them against Clemson last season.

AT LEAST THEY WON’T HAVE TO WEAR THOSE GOOFY SHOES: There will be an abundance of hat puns while discussing this year’s Tar Heels, but there will not be nearly as many jokes about bowling.  With a postseason ban in place for North Carolina, there will be no bowl games or ACC Championship appearances for UNC, regardless of record. So, how will this affect the 2012 season?

Certainly, there will be plenty of reasons to play well this season. For seniors, there’s the whole matter of improving your odds of being drafted into the NFL. For underclassmen, it will be a chance to prove their merits in hopes of larger roles in future seasons.  And for all of the above, a hot start would give the Heels a chance to play spoiler to a lot of folks, a role that anyone would cherish.

Hypothetically speaking, though, what happens if there is a slow start to the season? How will the team respond with no postseason incentives on the line? Glancing at the second-half schedule for the Tar Heels, there should still be plenty of reason to go for the kill every Saturday.  Homecoming will be against Georgia Tech, a team that traditionally gives ACC teams fits with its option offense that is everything Fedora isn’t.  There is always extra mojo to win one for the seniors in the last game of the season, which will be a home contest against Maryland this season.  And, of course, there will be games against Duke and N.C. State, with the whole matter of a five-year drought against the Wolfpack at stake.

I don’t actually believe any of those reasons are why North Carolina will win those games, because I’m not Skip Bayless. It does, however, relieve me to know that those reasons are there to prevent anyone wearing Carolina Blue from saying “This doesn’t matter anymore.” And as long as the team keeps showing up, the fans should do the same.

CAROLINA ATTENDANCE BLUES: Of course, whether they will or not is another debate. Average attendance for the Tar Heels dropped by roughly 2,500 last season.  This is an especially rough look when 2,980 seats were added before last season with the new “Blue Zone” seating area.

Of course, these are all reported attendance figures, which may be … ahem … inflated.  It is safe to say, however, that support at Kenan Stadium was weaker in 2011 than past seasons.  Fewer students were coming to games, and fewer folks were walking up on game day and buying tickets. Furthermore, those who did show up with seats in the seating expansion were inclined to enjoy the game from the comfort of the air-conditioned areas of the Blue Zone than to venture to their actual seats, especially during early season contests.

This isn’t written to judge: There’s plenty of reason for fans to not show up.  Some are upset over the academic scandal surrounding the university. Some can’t justify the cost of attending games (especially after you factor in parking, concessions, gas, etc.) in today’s economy.

However, it is something that will garner plenty of attention, as the bizarre outrage over North Carolina’s Spring Game attendance estimation demonstrated.  Because, you know, what else is there to talk about?

Zach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC.  Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements.  For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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