Louisville is favored by three points in the seventh meeting between these two programs (3-3). The Tar Heels defeated the Cardinals, 14-7, last season in Chapel Hill, although Louisville throttled UNC in the most recent meeting at Papa John's Stadium in 2005 by a 69-14 margin.
Bobby Petrino and John Bunting led Louisville and North Carolina, respectively, during that train-whistle extravaganza seven years ago. Both programs are on their second set of coaches since then, but the familiarity remains.
First-year UNC head coach Larry Fedora and third-year Louisville head coach Charlie Strong worked together at Florida in the early 1990s – the former as offensive coordinator; the latter as defensive coordinator – but both are still in the process of building their programs.
The Cardinals were an overwhelming favorite to win the Big East Championship in 2012 after returning 17 starters from a squad that tied for the conference title last fall. Louisville starts 13 underclassmen, however, including four on special teams.
"When you have a nationally ranked team, you like to say that you are a junior-senior team," said Strong. "When you have a team you think is going to compete for championships, you would like to have a junior-senior team. We have only nine seniors, so we are still young, still maturing, and still growing. I really do not know what we are right now. If you look at us from week to week, we still have a lot of growing up to do."
Louisville, at least, has been able to work on its growth while notching victories. Mental errors cost North Carolina its ACC-opening contest at Wake Forest last Saturday. The Tar Heels missed 24 defensive assignments and committed plenty more on the offensive side of the ball.
"We feel like we're got to scale back quite a bit so that our guys can go out and play and know what to do," Fedora said. "That gives us a chance to win, if we do that. Obviously, if they don't know what to do and they're making mistakes, we have no chance."
That loss in Winston-Salem provided the program its first dose of adversity under Fedora's direction.
"Sometimes you need the setback just to go forward again," safety Tre Boston said. "That was a big setback for us and now we know what we have to do to win."
It would help if first-team All-ACC running back Gio Bernard (203 all-purpose yards) returned to the lineup. The sophomore did not travel with the team and will therefore miss his second straight game with a knee injury.
Backups tailbacks A.J. Blue (28 rushes, 145 yards, 3 TD) and Romar Morris (24 rushes, 119 yards, TD) delivered solid performances in Bernard's absence last weekend, but UNC will need a balanced attack to move the ball against a Louisville squad that ranks 36th nationally in total defense (311.0 ypg) and 16th in scoring defense (10.5 ppg).
"They've got about three defensive ends that can fly off the ball, that's one thing," Fedora said. "Their linebackers really run well and in the secondary they've got a lot of speed. Probably the most unique thing is that they'll play a lot of man coverage and feel comfortable playing man."
North Carolina's veteran offensive line has only allowed two sacks thus far (T-23rd nationally); however, the problem for quarterback Bryn Renner (37-of-60 passing, 507 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) has been in learning Fedora's no-huddle spread scheme without a wealth of wide receivers to catch the ball.
Senior Erik Highsmith (8 catches, 115 yards) has proven to be Renner's best option, but injuries have decimated the receiving corps to the point where tight ends Eric Ebron (6 catches, 108 yards, TD) and Jack Tabb (3 catches, 47 yards, TD) have emerged as primary options in the passing game.
Louisville will counter with sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (49-of-60 passing, 576 yards, 2 TD), who ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency (173.31) and 26th in total offense (299.5 ypg), and running back Senorise Perry (35 carries, 180 yards, 2 TD).
"They run the ball very effectively," Fedora said. "They'll bring the power at you, two backs, and really bring it down hill. They can run the zone, the split zone [and] the quarterback can do so many things. He's tough out of the pocket, he's tough in the pocket and then when it breaks down, he'll take off and run and he can beat you with his legs."
A win on Saturday would give North Carolina its ninth victory in 10 games against nonconference opponents.
Kickoff is set for 3:30pm at Papa John's Stadium and will be televised on ABC/ESPN2.
Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.
Like IC on Facebook InsideCarolina.