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September 9, 2013North Carolina heads into a bye week with what many might consider a huge advantage before they return to game action September 21 at Georgia Tech. For the third time in five seasons, Tar Heels (1-1) open Atlantic Coast Conference play against the 'Ramblin Wreck in a game that always plays a direct role in the Coastal Division standings.
It's pretty cut and dry from a division standpoint---win this game, and you're sitting pretty. You've got a full game over one division rival, as well as an essential tie-breaker that could be huge come November.
On the other hand, a loss puts you behind the eight ball. You're down a game in the standings, have given up a tie-breaker, and now need help from opposing division rivals to have a chance and playing in Charlotte the first weekend of December in the ACC Championship Game.
An extra week to work Georgia Tech's system in practice and get more familiar with all the reads and keys can certainly be very helpful going into a game against them, but last year the Tar Heels had the extra week and still gave up a nightmarish 68 points to the Yellow Jackets (1-0), who this year opened up with a 70-0 blowout of Elon.
"I hope it helps (this year)," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora about the extra time to prepare for Georgia Tech. "We had it last year and we weren't successful with it. But we're going to try to make the most of it, and we're going to try to get as many reps as we possibly can to get ready for our conference opener."
That Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium last fall still brings shudders of disgust on behalf of UNC's fans, coaches, and players.
On the players' part, they've spent an entire offseason penciling in this matchup as one of redemption for possibly the worst single-game defensive performance in school history.
So while Georgia Tech's players spend this week in practice focusing on Duke, UNC is going to have two full weeks of workouts focusing on little else but the Yellow Jackets.
"I think we recall on Georgia Tech every day, every week. It's just one of those things where we will never let that happen again," said UNC safety Tre Boston during training camp.
Boston had a critical end zone interception in Saturday's 40-20 triumph over Middle Tennessee, but he of all people knows how hard it can be to beat the Yellow Jackets.
He's gone down to Atlanta and lost before, as he was part of the UNC secondary that gave up 35 points to the Yellow Jackets in a frustrating 2011 setback.
Having watched film of that game and last year's disastrous 68-50 game, he's hoping that they've picked up some things that will make for a better outing this time around.
"I definitely want to talk about the bad because we watched film. We don't like to watch the good. We know when we did good. But you've got to know what you did bad. And you want to learn from your worst plays," he said.
The UNC defensive players spoke about the need to read keys properly against Georgia Tech and play responsible assignment football. Nobody can do too much against this offense, or they run the risk of getting themselves out of position and springing a gap that the speedy Yellow Jacket backs and quarterback Vad Lee can exploit.
Furthermore, UNC must tackle well in the open field and not have a repeat of the South Carolina game, where missed tackling resulted in big plays on the ground.
Middle Tennessee's Jordan Parker gashed through some big holes on his way to a 100-yard rushing game this past Saturday, so clearly UNC has its work cut out for them in all phases of defending the run against the single-most difficult running game they'll face all season.
"I feel like it's wonderful (having the extra week for Georgia Tech)," said junior Darius Lipford. "You know, you can never have enough practice going up against a triple-option team, because one missed assignment and it can be a touchdown at any point in the game."
"I feel this will definitely give us some time to focus on the little details against Georgia Tech, and kind of expose some of their weaknesses once the coaching staff gets an opportunity to look into it, and learn from last year and try not to make the same mistakes."
"We plan on stopping that this year," said Boston of Tech's triple-option. "With anybody scoring that many points (as they did last year), we go on stuff like that and make sure that never happens, because that's embarrassing."
"It's actually good (to get the extra week of preparation). Georgia Tech is a great football team. If you read the wrong key, they will make you pay for it," added junior Norkeithus Otis. "So as long as we read the right keys and do the things we're supposed to do, I think we'll be set."
It's going to be critical for the UNC scout Team players to give the UNC defensive rotations a good look in practice as they run Georgia Tech's plays, and it will also be incumbent on the Tar Heel offensive players in team drills to be physical and relentless.
In doing so, they'll help themselves going against Georgia Tech's defense, while also aiding the UNC defense in getting ready for the barrage of quick, aggressive running plays heading their way in all directions.
"Mentally we have to be stronger than them," said fifth-year senior running back A.J. Blue. "We have to start out fast. We have to get on them early, and we just have to be consistent, especially on the defensive side. Guys are going to get cut. Guys are going to get irritated and annoyed. So I think they have to keep their composure, stay poised, and just keep playing hard."
While much will get made in the coming days about the need for UNC to find some way to solve Paul Johnson's dangerous offense, the flip side is that North Carolina's offense will get an extra week as well to gear up for a Georgia Tech defense that shut out a totally overmatched Elon squad, but hasn't exactly dominated under Johnson.
The problem for Carolina hasn't been scoring points over the years against Georgia Tech.
They amassed 50 last fall against the 'Ramblin Wreck in the highest-scoring game in ACC history (118 points), and in 2011 put up 28 points down in Atlanta.
The year before that---amidst all the turmoil of the 2010 season---UNC still managed to put up 24 points to Georgia Tech, though they gave up 28.
Since Johnson got to Georgia Tech in 2008, UNC has scored at least 24 points every time out against them with exception of 2009, when a depleted offensive line limped out of Atlanta with just seven points.
It's highly doubtful that UNC only scores seven points in Atlanta this time around, but the Tar Heels are fully aware that they're going to have to score early and often to guarantee victory next weekend.
"It (the bye week) helps (the UNC offense) pretty much the same way (it helps the defense), just getting to know their scheme a little bit better, because they've got a pretty good defense, so we've just got to learn their scheme," said sophomore running back Romar Morris, who scored twice in Saturday's victory over Middle Tennessee.
"I just think timing can be everything, and I think timing is everything in our offense," added Blue.
"The zone reads, any type of scheme that we have, I think timing comes down to it. I think we just need to work on our timing. After we get our timing down pat, I think we'll be a really good offense."
While UNC's defensive line has to worry about getting cut and hit below the waist against Georgia Tech's offensive line, the Tar Heel offensive front has to prepare for an aggressive Yellow Jacket defense that will try to confuse them with blitzing and deceptive looks up front.
"The offensive line is getting better and better every week," added Morris. "Everybody had a rough week (against South Carolina), but everybody has been just pushing forward. We had a great week of practice last week (before playing MTSU)."
UNC hasn't taken a game in Atlanta since 1997, Mack Brown's last year in Chapel Hill, and technically, since the 2008 victory was vacated, the Tar Heels don't have a win in the record books over the Yellow Jackets since 2004.
More importantly, UNC hasn't opened ACC play with a victory but once (2011) since the turn of the century.
These are statistics that simply must trend at some point in UNC's direction if they're to realistically be considered a year-to-year ACC Coastal Division contender under Fedora.
Combining that with what happened last year against Georgia Tech, and there's certainly no lack of excitement for the Tar Heels to get to work at making amends and getting off on the right foot in league play.
"This year, it's a whole new year," said Otis. "You've got to be focused and take it one game at a time. We'll prepare hard for them (Georgia Tech) this week, and then next week when we play them, we'll see what happens."