Yet, it's the nation's toughest slate of opponents that may pose the biggest challenge for the Tar Heels, and again, temper hopes for another bowl campaign in 2005.
"That doesn't bother me," Bunting said during ACC Kickoff, after ripping up a just released copy representing the league's media picks for this season. "I'm not a big believer in preseason polls; I'm only concerned about where we end up.
"I'm not surprised by it either," he said. "We lose a great player in Durant, but I believe in the guy we've got. I think we can still be a factor offensively in this league. Where we have to pick things up is defensively."
After a surprising finish in '04, there is a viable scenario the Tar Heels could win six and become bowl-eligible again in ‘05. And if the stars are aligned perfectly; a most outside and remote shot at a 7-4 regular season finish. And if worlds collide, the dead rise from their graves and the earth's rotation suddenly reverses its course; then 9-2.
However, most are predicting some type of disaster of a season with UNC ending finishing between range of 2-9 to 4-7, especially considering the injury adversity and personnel changes that went on through the spring and summer. Such a result could once again heighten the temperature underneath Bunting's chair.
"I think there has been a tremendous amount of motivation in our locker room and around our football team this entire spring and summer. But I think this schedule is very motivating. Week after week after week, this is going to be exciting.
This is by no means a gimme. But if a bowl is the goal in '05, then the Tar Heels better pick up this spare. And while UNC fans might not "Fear the Turtle;" they should fear "The Fridge."
Ralph Friedgen, a Terp alum who played against Bunting long ago and re-entered the league with him as a coach in 2001, denies he gets any special pleasure from beating North Carolina. However, his 3-0 record versus UNC, and better yet, the Terps' composite 141-35 scoring advantage in those games; begs to differ.
But '05 is projected to be a down year for Maryland, now four years removed from an ACC regular season championship and an Orange Bowl defeat at the hands of Florida. Expansion separated the Heels and Terps on the schedule in '04 for the first time since 1976. So if Carolina is up for the challenge, then this could be an opportune time to exact some measure of revenge.
Maryland will open fall camp eerily resembling that of Friedgen's first season. For the second consecutive year, the media focus in College Park will start at the quarterback position – spring left the Terps with a pecking order of three – Sam Hollenback, Joel Statham and Jordan Steffy; hardly household names.
The defensive line is also young, with the defense as a whole only returning three seniors.
"My only apprehension with this team is that they're very, very young," Friedgen said. "If we can continue to keep the same attitude and the same motivation and drive, then we'll be successful and we'll be a good team. They've just got to learn from their mistakes, and I know how that is. I think we have some talent on this football team."
Without crossing the lines of respectful reporting, if this is to be a positive year for Carolina Football, it goes without saying the Tar Heels – now, and always – must beat the Blue Devils.
The arrival of heralded newcomers' Re'quan Boyette from Wilson and Charlotte's Ayanga Okpokowuruk marked a resurgence in Duke's in-state recruiting effort.
"I'm really, really excited about that freshman bunch," Blue Devils coach Ted Roof said. "All those kids were very highly recruited. To think that we could jump out there and say, ‘Hey, it's OK to go to Duke and play football.' It's part of the great opportunity that these guys have – to be an architect and be on the ground floor building this thing."
But not only is Duke building for the future.
With the return of junior quarterback Mike Schneider (2,747 career passing yards and 12 touchdowns) and 6-4, 260-pound H-Back Ben Patrick (32 receptions fro 311 yards and a TD in ‘04), the Devils expect to be an even tougher out this year.
Throw in the historical rivalry between the two programs and the covetousness of "The Victory Bell," and everyone knows you can throw out the record books in this match-up.
While most of its statistical ranking last year was in and around the 100's, the Blue Devils finished ranked 36th in the nation in passing defense – allowing just 200.7 yards per game through the air.
Any doubt Carolina wants to throw the ball a lot this year?
Despite last year's outcome at Kenan Stadium, the Yellow Jackets return the same quarterback (Reggie Ball) and defensive coordinator (Jon Tenuta) that helped mastermind a 41-24 thrashing of the Tar Heels in 2003.
In fact, Bobby Dodd Stadium, nestled in a tight, un-parkable region just south of Peachtree Street and downtown Atlanta; has been unkind to UNC Football since 1997.
Tenuta is still steaming over Carolina's 34-13 win last season.
"You know Coach Tenuta wants to beat North Carolina, since he used to coach there," said Tech linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. "I mean, he's fired up for every game, but that's definitely the game he's most fired up about every year."
Along with Ball, the Yellow Jackets' offense will return senior tailback P.J. Daniels and sophomore sensation wide receiver Calvin Johnson – just enough to test the untested UNC defense on the road.
By the time the two teams meet, Ga. Tech will have already taken a shot at 15th ranked Auburn. Is that a bad thing? Look at it like this. The Tar Heels will be focusing on the Yellow Jackets throughout training camp, while Ga. Tech will be looking toward an possible early season upset over the Tigers.
This one is most interesting to say the least – especially as it pertains to season momentum for both UNC and Ga. Tech.
Badgers' coach Barry Alvarez will give way to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema to focus solely on his position of Athletics Director – but not until the conclusion of the upcoming season. That doesn't bode well for the Tar Heels, who almost certainly must win this home opener – already scheduled for a 7 p.m. start under the lights at Kenan Stadium.
The Badgers rattled off nine straight wins to start last season, but then dropped its final three, including a 24-21 decision to Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
As is the theme throughout UNC's 2005 schedule, most of the current Tar Heels still remember a 38-27 loss at Camp Randall in 2003 – the only time the two schools have met on the football field. The Tar Heels struck first in that one, when Michael Waddell ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Carolina also intercepted its only two passes of the season in the contest. But despite serious defensive shortcomings, the Tar Heels remained close until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when over 80,000 red-clad fans began hopping up and down Cameron Crazy style to House of Pain's "Jump Around." The rousing tune lit a fire under the Badgers who pulled away for good; and it was the impetus for the pre-game basketball ritual last season in the Dean Dome.
Dare I say it? Payback is due.
Realistically, State still has the same quarterback, plenty of depth at running back and major questions concerning the offensive line, to go with its nationally top-ranked defense. All-ACC defensive ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson, along with returning tackles John McCargo, Tank Tyler and Demario Pressley, tallied an incredible 50 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season.
On paper, the Wolfpack again appear to be the heavy favorites in this one. But exactly when since Chuck Amato took over has N.C. State ever considered itself the underdog?
Judging by the annual hype of Wolfpack Nation, this match-up will maim and dismember the Tar Heels for years to come. A post-war baby boom of sorts in Chapel Hill will be required if any hope of further "Carolina Football-Dom" is to ever return.
Seriously, this will be a war and only an inspired effort by UNC will saddle locally-beloved Amato with a losing record against his inter-county rival, the seemingly always beleaguered Bunting.
I like to detour the pre-game hype and actually see how this one turns out.
What in the world could the Utes possibly follow up that "whirley-bird" offense led by graduated Heisman Trophy candidate Alex Smith, led by their former head coach Urban Meyer?
"Utah, coming off an unbelievable season, is the best team that I've faced in my four years in terms of everything that they did; and that quarterback was the finest I've every seen at the college level," Bunting said.
But UNC will host a considerably different Utah squad, led by first-year coach Kyle Whittingham. Again, "payback" could come into play in Kenan Stadium, where Georgia Tech, Miami and NC State faltered last season, and Virginia Tech eeked out a win that ultimately decided the league championship.
The new look Utes return just five starters on both offense and defense. Five all-conference performers in '05 are replaced by just one first team All-MWC member defensive lineman Steve Fifita.
Few UNC fans will remember, but in last year's record-setting loss in Salt Lake City, the Tar Heels' defense actually opened the game by stopping their opponent for the first time on an opening drive all season. And then, the UNC offense followed that up with a dominating drive that culminated in a one-yard touchdown score by Madison Hedgecock and a early 7-0 lead.
Momentarily, the Utah fans were stunned. However, before the first quarter would end, no less than seven Carolina players would be hauled off the field due to injury.
Utah went on to ring up 669 yards of total offense on the Tar Heels, en route to a 46-16 win, and later, a Fiesta Bowl championship.
Last year's 56-24 dismantling in Charlottesville still stings, as does 549 yards of total offense (299 rushing) surrendered. But Virginia has not always felt at home in Chapel Hill, with the Tar Heels holding a 28-10-3 series lead at Kenan Stadium.
There should be plenty of incentive to right some of last year's defensive ills that were uncovered early last season.
With returning quarterback Marques Hagans, tailback Wali Lundy and Outland Trophy candidate D'Brickashaw Ferguson on the offensive line, and Butkus Award candidate Ahmad Brooks, Carolina will have its hands full with the Cavaliers; in a game sandwiched in between trips to Louisville and Miami (and a bye week).
The good news is Carolina knows it can play with Boston College. The Tar Heels led the Eagles 24-21 headed into the fourth quarter of last season's Continental Tire Bowl. Were it not for a BC touchdown on a fake field goal and a drop by Derrele Mitchell of an almost certain touchdown pass; 65,000 or so UNC fans would have likely enjoyed their short twilight drive back up I-85 north.
The MVP of that game, Eagles' quarterback Paul Peterson has graduated and turned over the reigns to 6-5, 233-pound senior Quinton Porter. And of course, everybody's All-American defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka returns to anchor the BC defense.
"They're a big powerful team," Bunting said of the Eagles. "They're well-coached with a lot of continuity in their coaching scheme."
The Tire Bowl loss left a bad taste in Bunting's mouth, so again, there should be ample amounts of ‘want to' in this one for the Tar Heels.
This one may belong among the longshots. But considering Carolina played the reigning ACC champs to within a just missed 54-yard potential game-tying field goal attempt last season, I like this one to have a chance at being competitive.
Former Tar Heels' and Hokies' coach Bill Dooley once said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in Blacksburg. And the last time UNC played a football game on the VPI campus was 1930. That's not a lot of useful experience to draw from.
UNC has only lost once in the last eight meetings between the two schools, last year's 27-24 heartbreaker at Kenan Stadium. But other than their 42-3 '97 Gator Bowl triumph, which actually took place on New Year's Day, 1998; the Tar Heels haven't defeated the Hokies since shortly after World War II ended.
But while there may not be much recent history in this series, there does exist a moderately rabid football rivalry between the two schools.
This could be ugly. Perhaps its major conference envy, but the Cardinals seems to play every game with a chip on their shoulders. In '04, Louisville outscored its opponents by a whopping composite score of 597-236 – an average 49.8 to 19.7 mauling per game. They simply whipped everyone except Miami, including the Tar Heels at home, 34-0.
Clearly when UNC officials set this one up, they were unaware of the powerhouse Bobby Petrino was about to forge. It may not be as long a trip as Utah was last season for UNC, but the outcome may well be painfully similar.
"I didn't have a whole lot – if anything – to do with this year's schedule," Bunting said. "I don't think anybody when they're scheduling Louisville and Utah expected Louisville might have even been projected as No. 1."
UNC won't have the opportunity to sneak up on Miami in Coral Gables, thanks to its monumental 31-28 upset last season in Chapel Hill. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the Hurricanes are the only team from the Sunshine State they will have to face since Florida State is not on the schedule this year.
But Miami should provide more than enough challenge for Carolina.
"It's definitely a sore spot," ‘Canes' offensive lineman Eric Winston said. "That's the ACC. North Carolina was a bowl team last year and everybody wants to act like they were 2-10. They're a good team. They could run the ball and they have good players. We've got to come to play. It's not their fault that we didn't come to play."
Miami got a rude awakening in its inaugural ACC campaign in '04, but don't expect three conference losses again this year. Instead, plan on watching the ‘Canes pound out their frustrations on teams like the visiting Tar Heels.
So there you go. It is as it has always been during the Bunting regime – a brutal schedule ahead with big questions regarding available personnel on the horizon.
"We've never shied away," Bunting said. "We've never cried about our schedule and we're not going to do it again this year. It is what it is. It's a tremendous motivation for our players and it's great for our fans to come in and see these teams."
Welcome to another year of UNC Football.