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July 4, 2012Fireworks bursting across the evening skies to celebrate Independence Day are like a starter's pistol sounding the beginning of a race, but these explosions will instead launch another football season.
National Football League training camps will open with the Philadelphia Eagles on July 22. Quickly thereafter, the rest of the league will start work toward another season.
The same day the Eagles open camp, first-year Carolina coach Larry Fedora and the rest of the ACC's coaches and selected players will meet in Greensboro to talk about the 2012 season at the annual ACC Football Kick-Off.
Just a couple of weeks later, collegiate teams across the country will assemble and commence work under the searing summer sun. For UNC, of course, this will be more than the start of a new season. It will be the next step in moving out of the pitch-black shadows that have engulfed the program for the past two years.
Meanwhile, the whole of college football will be undergoing a new phase.
Pro football dominates sports in the United States, but college football will get even stronger -- and richer -- with the advent of a mini-playoff of four teams.
The question that will not be answered until later is where the ACC and UNC will fit into this new dynamic, now that the people who run college football have finally scaled the hurdle of accepting a playoff of some sort.
Just as the NCAA basketball tournament did not become the massive beast it is today until the field expanded to 64-plus teams, this change in football will only assure the explosion in popularity of the sport and the even-greater flood of cash that will inevitably pour into the sport.
This move will also tighten the grip football already has on all of collegiate sports. The major conferences would only agree to cracking the door to a true playoff system so long as the conferences maintain control of the game, which is unique as it relates to all other collegiate sports.
Georgia and Oklahoma earned the right to control their television rights for football (their victories then instantly affected the rest of college football) by beating the NCAA in court during the 1980s.
Football schools, led by the Southeastern Conference, are not about to yield the power they gained through the years.
The victory in court eventually led to the dilution of the rule-making power of the NCAA and non-BCS conferences.
This trend will continue.
While so many other major schools and conferences know their power and income will continue to grow, the future is trickier for Carolina and the rest of whatever constitutes the Atlantic Coast Conference.
UNC is only starting on its journey to overcome the scandal that led to its first NCAA probation in 50 years. Keep in mind that what happened here would be akin to swatting a fly at any SEC school aside from Vanderbilt.
There is no wavering about what is most important in places such as Tuscaloosa, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., and Gainesville, Fla.
The hiring, and subsequent exposure, of John Blake as a "runner" for a sports agent would more than likely be the only charge that could have made headlines in the deep South.
For those who wish to look honestly at UNC's situation, it is now obvious the charges are not today what appeared so clear to so many two years ago.
As Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams has already accurately depicted, the cheating scandal Chancellor Holden Thorp claimed spread throughout the football program turns out is not a basketball or football problem.
As Williams said, this issue is a university problem.
Early reports suggest athletes were not disproportionately involved in the academic transgressions by the African-American studies program at Carolina.
The NCAA states clearly that athletes should not gain any advantage the rest of the student body is not privy. The cheating that occurred in this department was equally accessible to all students, regardless of whether that person played sports or not.
Now Carolina will hobble into this new world, lagging in perception and reality.
As for the league, expansion has not developed as ACC officials had hoped. The ACC clearly had more stature with nine teams during the 1990s, when Florida State consistently finished among the top four teams in the nation. The Seminoles won two national championships in that span and competed for others.
Such success has disappeared from the campuses at Florida State and Miami, who now have the audacity to whine about the stature of the league in football.
Those two are chiefly responsible for the ACC's failures in football as a conference.
When the league added Miami, at FSU's urging, those two were supposed to be to the ACC what Carolina and Duke are in basketball. The expansion of the conference and addition of a championship game were created so that those two could meet for a second time each season, with the winner advancing to compete for a national championship during many seasons.
Instead the two have floundered. Their failures have dragged the league down along with them. Virginia Tech has an outstanding football program as far as consistently winning regular-season games, but the Hokies simply are not Miami or Florida State.
Then last season, Clemson, which is another school that had the nerve to complain about the league during the off-season, played what is maybe the most embarrassing game in league history for a team that was supposed to be on the same level with other national powers in 2011. The Tigers were a total bust in the Orange Bowl.
So now that college football is within reach of a new season and a new era, UNC and the ACC face some uncomfortable and unsettling questions.
The Tar Heels must decide if they are genuinely going to utilize their only remaining area for major revenue growth and support football with full conviction. The ACC must come to terms with why it has fallen so far behind other conferences and devise a plan to close the gap.
Otherwise both Carolina and the conference face the possibility of being independent of the growth that is now inevitable for the rest of major-college football.