Nine of UNC’s 12 regular season opponents this season played in bowl games last year, including the Scarlet Knights, which went 7-5 losing to Arizona State 45-40 in the Insight Bowl.
The Tar Heels are in search of just their second season-opening win in six tries.
UNC is coming off a 5-6 record (4-4 ACC) in 2005 playing against the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule, and just missing a second straight bowl berth after dropping two of its final three contests.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is in his sixth year for the Scarlet Knights, as he, like the Tar Heel head coach, is striving to build on the program’s momentum and become a regularly successful team.
“In Rutgers we’re facing an opponent that has done some good things with their program and had some struggles,” John Bunting said. “Certainly they had an outstanding year last year. We did not, we had an average year.
“As we enter the season, we’re looking to do some of the same things they are looking to do. They have talented players. They have great skill players, receivers that can run, and a Heisman Trophy candidate they say in Brian Leonard, and it’s certainly legit. They’ve got a big offensive line and their center is as good as anybody’s.
“Defensively, at times last year is something that acted up on them. We’ll see how they are this year. They’ve got some talent there also. The Ramel Meekins kid is a heck of a player. They have linebackers with tremendous experience.
“We’re looking to go toe-to-toe with them down here.”
The Tar Heels’ defense is expected to be even more improved than last season, in which it jumped from rankings in the 100s, to one of the top 50 units in ’05.
Senior Ronnie McGill is as healthy as he’s been in several years, and UNC will need his production at tailback while junior starting quarterback Joe Dailey re-acquaints himself with football game-speed after sitting out the 2005 season due to transfer rules; and perhaps redshirt freshman QB Cam Sexton will see significant time in his first career game.
First-year offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti brings a new look and new excitement to the Carolina offense, but the Tar Heels will need to get up to speed quickly in order to keep up with a Rutgers squad that averaged 28 points per game last season.
“We spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to find out more about their football team,” Schiano said. “They are very talented. There is always uncertainty in your first game. They’ve got a new offensive coordinator, and we tried to investigate some of the things they did at Fresno State. But we really don’t know how it’s going to mesh together with the new personnel at UNC.
“So there are some question marks, we’re going on the road to play in a hostile environment, and we’re a young team. We have some real strong senior leadership, but 58 of our 85 scholarship kids will have three or four years of eligibility remaining when we take the field Saturday.
“The new coordinator coupled with the two new quarterbacks – that’s a lot of ‘ifs.’ I’m probably a little more familiar with Joe Dailey than most coaches, because we recruited him heavily when he was in high school. I have a little bit about his skill set and what he can do. I don’t know much about No. 11 [Sexton] but reading between the lines, it appears that he’s had a good camp. Once the game starts, I don’t know how much that’s going to come into play. We’ll see.”
Though UNC and Rutgers have met twice before – both Scarlet Knights shutouts played in New Jersey – the two teams haven’t renewed pleasantries since the Tar Heels resumed football play following a four-year hiatus due to the outbreak of World War I.