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October 1, 2012

Hokies make an ideal gauge

The season will not end with the final seconds of Saturday'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 one could make a huge difference when all is said and done for 2012.

"This is definitely going to be a measuring stick for us," 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 to be learned in this transition year. So 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 times, each at home.

This game will be this season's first against a division opponent in Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0). The Hokies 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 (3-2, 0-1) to first place the division eventually.

This is also a huge opportunity for what Fedora, his coaching staff and Bubba Cunningham, the new director of athletics, are trying to do 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.

"It's a conference game and they're coming into Kenan Stadium to play in the Tar Pit," Fedora said. "We've got to defend this place. We're trying to build something about playing at home and what it means.

"We want to continue with what we've done, and it is very important to us to build this program to where we want it to be."

In an attempt to further engage the fans, the school will hold a "White Out" on Saturday at Kenan. Fedora and school officials are encouraging the fans to wear all white. In turn, the team is going to do the same.

The team will wear white helmets with the traditional Carolina blue interlocking "NC" on the sides.

This past week the Tar Heels wore an American flag shaped in the form of the interlocking "NC" on the players' helmets and on the logo at midfield as the school honored U.S. military personnel.

"If you feel good, you play good kind of thing," Bernard said. "For us, we had been doing the same old kind of concept, with the Carolina-blue jerseys. We'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."

This isn'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 team's second shutout of the year, or having the Tar Heels extend 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 Fedora's first class is the biggest reason for that. Another reason 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 Beamer's first six seasons in Blacksburg, Va., they gradually became a national contender and one of the fundamentally soundest 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 -- 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 of people 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.

"We want to be Coastal Division champs, so we are going to go out there and approach it that way," 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 Fedora's first season as head coach.

"We still have a season ahead of us," Bernard said. "We'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."


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