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August 26, 2013Season openers through the years have produced both great memories and bitter disappointments for North Carolina's football program.
The Tar Heels are certainly hoping to produce the former Thursday in Columbia, S.C., when they open the 2013 season against No. 6-ranked South Carolina.
But to do so, UNC will have to end what has been an unsuccessful trend when it comes to starting out against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
Since the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953, North Carolina has not lost a season opener (13-0) when opposing a Football Championship Subdivision team.
But when meeting an FBS foe in the opener, the Tar Heels are own a 21-26 record since becoming an ACC member, including losses in its last six.
UNC hasn't beaten an FBS squad in its opener since downing Tulsa, 30-9, to kick off the 2000 season at Kenan Stadium.
That record has been even more dismal when UNC opens the season against nationally ranked teams.
The Tar Heels have an overall record of 2-10 when kicking off against nationally ranked teams with its only wins coming in 1993 when they defeated Southern Cal in Pigskin Classic at Anaheim, Calif., and in 1976 with a triumph over Miami (Ohio) at home.
Those games are two of the highlights of my list of the best and worst of North Carolina's season openers for football.
Let's save the best for last. Here's a look at five season openers against nationally ranked opponents the Tar Heels could have won, and one against an arch rival they'd rather forget.
Sept. 24, 1955 at Kenan Stadium vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
The Sooners had the closest call in their run to an 11-0 record and the national championship before a crowd of 26, 638 at Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels, who would finish only 3-7 under Coach George Barclay that season, actually led early in the contest, 6-0, in the first quarter when defensive tackle John Bilich in the end zone.
Oklahoma went ahead 7-6 in the third period when Bob Burris scored from eight yards out on a sweep play. All-American halfback and future NFL Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald sealed the win for Oklahoma two-yard touchdown run in the fourth period.
It was a disappointing end to a valiant defensive effort by the Tar Heels, which gave the Sooners field position at the 3-, 14-, 18-, 30- and 1-yard lines without yielding a score.
The game would become a footnote in college football history as it was part of a 47-game winning streak by the Sooners under Coach Bud Wilkinson that still stands as the longest in NCAA history.
Oklahoma 13, North Carolina 6.
Sept. 19, 1966 at Kenan Stadium against arch rival N.C. State
The Wolfpack dealt the Tar Heels many a season-opening losses during the 1950s and 1960s, but none stung quite as much as this epic, down-to-the-wire battle.
N.C. State went ahead, 14-7, with 12:21 to play on Pete Falzarano's 38-yard run. But UNC regained possession with 1:42 to play and staged a rally behind sophomore quarterback Danny Talbott.
Talbott threw to sophomore end Billy Darnell three times in a drive that culminated with 48 seconds to play when Talbott hit fullback Ken Willard with a nine-yard touchdown pass.
The Tar Heels elected to go for a two-point conversion and the win in an era long before overtime in college football, but N.C. State's Ron Skosnik batted down a pass attempt by Talbott to preserve the victory for the Wolfpack, which went on to claim a share of the ACC title.
"This is the big game game for us,'' then-N.C. State head coach Earle Edwards said after the win. "UNC might think about Duke as its big one, but this is it for us.''
N.C. State 14, North Carolina 13.
Sept. 9, 1983 at Three Rivers Stadium against No. 1 Pittsburgh
A national TV audience and 54,449 fans at Three Rivers Stadium witnessed a magnificent defensive performance by a UNC defense led by defensive lineman William Fuller, linebackers Bill Sheppard and Mike Wilcher, and defensive back Greg Poole.
The Tar Heels intercepted future NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino four times and limited him to just 125 yards passing. A field goal by Brooks Barwick put UNC up 3-0 in the first half. But Marino came alive long enough in the third period to direct seven-play, 69-yard scoring drive.
Marino's 4-yard scoring pass to Bryan Thomas and Snuffy Everett's point-after kick would wind up being the game winning points.
Rob Rogers added a 48-yard field goal later for UNC to pull the Tar Heels within 7-6, but any hopes of an upset were dashed when the final offensive threat in the fourth period was spoiled by a sack.
Pittsburgh 7, North Carolina 6.
Sept. 4, 1999 at Kenan Stadium vs. No. 23 Virginia
The Tar Heels were riding an eight-game winning streak against Virginia in Kenan Stadium entering the game, which was played as Hurricane Dennis was bearing down on the North Carolina coast.
An 89-yard interception return by Antwan Black in the second quarter gave the Tar Heels a 6-3 halftime lead, but the team's offensive struggles that day against the Cavaliers served as a prelude of things to come that autumn.
The teams had battled to a 17-all tie when the Cavaliers gained possession with 3:29 to play. Running back Thomas Jones gained 21 of the 149 rushing he racked up in the game to move Virginia in position for a 50-yard field goal by Todd Braverman.
Braverman, who only won the starting kicking job three days earlier, cleared the cross bar by a mere yard with 27.4 seconds left for the win.
Virginia 20, North Carolina 17.
Sept. 4, 2010 at the Georgia Dome vs. No. 21 LSU
UNC entered the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game rated 18th, but played without 13 players suspended or held out due to the NCAA's investigation of Butch Davis's program that ultimately resulted in his dismissal and several players being declared permanently ineligible.
But quarterback T.J. Yates didn't allow the Tar Heels to roll over amidst the adversity. Yates passed for more than 412 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns that cut the Tigers' advantage to 30-24 with 2:32 to play.
Thanks to a generous LSU fumble on a first down conversion that would have allowed them to run out the block, Yates maneuvered UNC into position for a potential game-tying or game-winning score from the Tigers' 6-yard line with six seconds left.
But normally sure-handed tight end Zach Pianalto couldn't come up with a pass from Yates in the end zone, and a second throw to Pianalto with two seconds remaining fell incomplete.
LSU 30, North Carolina 24.
Now for those season openers to remember. Here are five great Tar Heel triumphs for the memory books.
Sept. 25, 1948 at Kenan Stadium against Texas
Okay, so this is a pre-ACC era game. But I had to include at least one Choo Choo Justice moment.
UNC's triple-threat halfback ran for two touchdowns and passed for two more as the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels bested a Texas squad that would go on to beat No. 8 Georgia in the Orange Bowl.
UNC would finish 9-1-1 overall, including a loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
North Carolina 34, Texas 7.
Sept. 4, 1976 at Kenan Stadium against No. 20 Miami (Ohio)
The Redhawks had been on a roll under future North Carolina coach Dick Crum and began the season in the national rankings.
But Bill Dooley was on a hot streak of his own at UNC and the Tar Heels delivered their first triumph over a nationally ranked squad behind the great Mike Voight, on his way to his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season for the Tar Heels.
According to legend, Voight flipped Crum the middle finger on one long run down the MIami sidelines after Crum had spent much of the day yelling to his defense, 'Get Voight's Ass!'
Of course, Crum would become the Tar Heels' head coach two years later after Dooley left UNC for Virginia Tech.
North Carolina 14, Miami (Ohio) 10.
Sept. 12, 1981 at Kenan Stadium against in-state rival East Carolina
One of my all-time favorite memories for many reasons.
First and foremost was UNC tailback Kelvin Bryant dashing for 211 rushing yards and six touchdowns in only about two-and-a-half quarters.
It was the first college start for Bryant and one of the best individual games by a Tar Heel player ever. Prior to the game there was an element of intrigue when two strangers were spotted in the library of the UNC School of Law, which overlooks the UNC football practice field.
The pair were later identified by the law school dean through media guide photos as ECU graduate assistant coaches.
An ECU fraternity further motivated UNC later in the week by telling a Raleigh newspaper it had kidnapped the Tar Heel mascot, Rameses.
And then there was the poignant moments created by Bryant when he honored paralyzed former teammate Steve Streater by handing him the ball in the end zone after his fifth and sixth touchdowns.
North Carolina 56, East Carolina 0.
August 29, 1993 at Anaheim Stadium against No. 18 Southern Cal
My favorite all-time UNC opener for two reasons.
One, I was there covering the game as part of the ACC Football Tour. We had just covered the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., the night before and taken the red eye to the West Coast to watch the Tar Heels.
Admittedly, I was a bit drowsy when the game began. But the Tar Heels shook me awake with a big-time performance in front of a national television audience in the Pigskin Classic.
The most vivid memory of the game: Marcus Wall, a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder receiver, enjoyed a breakout game with 69 all-purpose yards, including 30 on four rushes and 20 on a kickoff return.
He also scored his first career touchdown that day on an option pitch rush from the 6-yard line. But it was a play that Wall made in the first quarter that will always stick with me.
After making a catch, Wall headed up the left sideline where he was met by USC defensive back Mike Salmon.
Salmon, the brother of then major league outfielder Tim Salmon, attempted to tackle Wall. But instead Wall lowered his shoulder and buried Salmon in a collision so powerful that Salmon had to leave the game with an injury. Priceless.
North Carolina 24, Southern Cal 8.
August 31, 1996 at Kenan Stadium against Clemson
Does it really get any better for UNC fans than throwing a shutout against Clemson in the season opener? Linebacker Brian Simmons and defensive back Greg Williams both had interceptions as the Tar Heels limited the Tigers to 91 yards of total offense.
Leon Johnson rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns, while Chris Keldorf completed 15 of 22 passes for 182 yards and two more scores to pace a UNC offense that piled up 191 yards rushing and 238 passing. - North Carolina 45, Clemson 0.
Hopefully for Tar Heel fans, Thursday's opener against South Carolina in Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium can provide UNC with some new opening game memories of the positive kind.