Saturday's clash with conference-rival Maryland may be the most important game of the year for the Tar Heels. A loss and UNC could be 0-3 after next week's visit to Texas. Despite the positive feeling emanating from new coach John Bunting's squad, rebounding will be quite difficult.
A loss also means Carolina would have to win seven of its final nine games to be bowl-eligible, thus it would be necessary to defeat Florida State, Clemson, or Georgia Tech.
A common belief is that teams improve more between their first and second games than at any other time. Carolina fans hope that's the case after last Saturday's 41-27 loss at defending national champion Oklahoma that saw the Heels down 41-7 in the second quarter.
However, Bunting thinks the largest period of improvement extends until the third game.
"I'm not sure about the most [improvement]; the most is probably made between the first and third game," Bunting told the media earlier this week. "But we should make significant progress between the first and second games. By the third game, you should be hitting your stride."
If the Heels are to approach their stride, a quality performance in College Park, Md., is a must, yet it won't be easy.
The Terrapins offer challenges in the form of a capable defense and a new offensive scheme for its current personnel. They will also have a nearly full house to usher in a new era tabbed as "Fridge Fever."
New head coach Ralph Friedgen has returned to his alma mater after orchestrating successful and unique offenses at Georgia Tech (twice, including the 1990 national title season) and with the San Diego Chargers (including their 1994 Super Bowl season). He is confident his team is ready and that quarterback Shaun Hill will capably handle the task of running the show.
"He has progressed very fast," Friedgen said of Hill. "He's much improved over where he was in the spring. He has a better understanding of the offense and what we're trying to get done with it. His decisions have been very quick."
Hill's decision-making better be quick against a UNC front line that has received national praise this week for their play against the Sooners.
With UNC defensive end Julius Peppers going up against a Maryland redshirt freshman, he will likely draw added attention from another lineman and even the Terps' fullback on occasion. This obviously concerns Friedgen because it will leave talented UNC defensive tackle Ryan Sims in mostly one-on-one situations.
"What makes it a problem is the guy inside," Friedgen said of Sims. "If you want to double Julius, the guards don't have it any easier."
The Tar Heels won't have it any easier if Ronald Curry doesn't put an end to the sudden talk of a quarterback controversy in Chapel Hill. Curry's play in Norman, Oklahoma, was less than stellar and despite his immense prep credentials and seemingly limitless potential, he finds himself—for possibly the first time in his football-playing life—needing to prove he is the man for the job. And this for a senior who has rarely, if ever, looked over his shoulder.
"We are going to start Ronald in this game against Maryland," Bunting said emphatically. "And we intend for him to play the entire game unless circumstances arise that we then make another decision."
And those circumstances are?
"The game is out of hand one way or the other," the former All-ACC linebacker continued. "The game is not going well in protection of the quarterback, and third, if the quarterback, Ronald, gets off to a very poor start, then we're going to consider making a change.
"I don't expect that to happen. I expect Ronald to be much, much more like Ronald this week. And therefore I don't expect to have Darian (Durant) play. That's my expectations."
In Curry's defense, the Tar Heels must get better play from their offensive line. If Maryland can put half the pressure on UNC's offense that Oklahoma did in the first half it will still be enough to disrupt any consistent flow and probably spell doom for Curry.
Thus, if things go poorly enough that Curry is pulled, this crucial contest could prove to be a season-wrecker.
One game usually doesn't make a season, but after three years of lackluster approaches, questionable attitudes and fake confidence, starting out 0-2 and perhaps 0-3 isn't exactly the tonic one would prescribe to cleanse the Tar Heel system of any remaining waste.
The importance of this game simply can't be overstated, as it is the biggest game on UNC's schedule.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also is a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and published The College Gam and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.