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The ghost of (football) season past

Seeing the local baseball teams play their final games this week means just one thing: an early start to football.

No, the National Pastime isn’t on life support – and please, let me distinguish that there’s plenty of amateur diamond action still going on to suit your fancy any day, or night, at your favorite ball yard. It’s just that my email mailbox is starting to fill up with info on college football – even bowl games.

There’s the NCAA telling 5-7 college teams, regardless of their conference membership, they will not be as bowl worthy after the 2016 season as 6-6 teams from less influential leagues.

Sure, some 5-7 big-name teams (yes, you, Minnesota and Nebraska!) did get to go bowling last year; it may have been because there were only 77 teams with bowl-eligible records (6-6) for the 80 bowl openings. I hope you remember the AutoNation Cure Bowl from last December. If so, maybe you see where I’m coming from (Please!).

However, I’m going to put a ‘juke move’ on you and say this is about hoping my beloved Tar Heels don’t implode at the start – or the end – of this upcoming year.

This year UNC opens with the Georgia Bulldogs in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. Granted, ACC teams are just 1-6 against the SEC in this season-opening showcase, but if Carolina can find some way to beat Georgia, it might just bring them back to the A-T-L for the New Year’s Eve Chick-fil-A game – a mini-‘major’ bowl game. That game might even pit them against those same ‘Dawgs!

Four years ago, this game launched one of Clemson’s most successful seasons where the Tigers beat Auburn there to open the year, and closed it beating LSU at the same venue.

But, realistically, Carolina ain’t Clemson.

Carolina’s opener last season in Charlotte was against South Carolina. The Heels came up short; victimized by turnovers in one of just two games Steve Spurrier won before he bailed on the Gamecocks mid-October. Although UNC didn’t lose again in the regular season, the ‘Cocks loss haunted them in the national polls all the way to their eight-point loss to Clemson in the ACC title game.

And that was followed by that horrible 49-38 loss to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl where the Bears ran for almost 650 yards on something like 80 carries and were showing no signs of tiring at the end.

I’ll credit Cam Newton’s former head man, ex-Auburn coach Gene Chizik, and his first season as an assistant in Chapel Hill as a resounding success. What had been a porous defensive unit rebounded impressively and the Heels wind up 11-3 overall and the Coastal Division champ in the ACC.

But, doggone: it’s just those two games – the start and the finish.

Six Carolina defensive starters from a year ago will be back, including potential All-ACC stars DT Nazair Jones and DB’s Donnie Miles, M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. But the defense clearly played off the emotions of senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer a year ago, and finding a similar leader will be vital, especially in what will surely be an emotional home-state opener for Georgia fans.

Whether Georgia running back Nick Chubb turns out to be ready for the season opener or not – he’s coming off knee surgery that derailed his impressive start in 2015 after just five games – the Heels will show up with a lot of rushing talent of their own in Elijah Hood, Khris Francis and TJ Logan, all running behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the ACC.

The ‘Dawgs will be favored whether Chubb plays or not. But I can’t help but be haunted by that 2015 South Carolina game all over again: a chance for the Heels to steal an upset and get some much-needed National Championship-talk, if only for one week.

Well, I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost.

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.