There is perhaps no bigger villain in modern North Carolina football history than Steve Spurrier. During his first head coaching job at archrival Duke, the Ol' Ball Coach waxed UNC 41-0 en route to the 1989 ACC title. And if the loss was not enough, the Blue Devils coach huddled his players beneath the Kenan Stadium scoreboard to capture a team picture.
But while UNC fans are still seething over that incident almost 20 years later, head coach Butch Davis is not concerned with the past – in fact, he was even caught off guard when asked about it during his weekly press conference on Monday.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Davis said.
The first-year UNC head coach diffused the hype heading into last week’s contest against Miami by downplaying his first meeting with his former program, and it appears as though he’s following the same game plan heading into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
“For us, this is the next game on our schedule, and I’m just worried about us trying to get better every week,” Davis said.
South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC) jumped into the Associated Press’ Top-10 by defeating Georgia and then-ranked No. 8 Kentucky last Thursday, while keeping a loss to top-ranked LSU respectable at Tiger Stadium (28-16).
“This is clearly going to be the best football team that we’ve played,” Davis said. “Their defense is as talented and as fast as anybody that I’ve seen. They’re extraordinarily aggressive. They bring a tremendous amount of pressure [and] a tremendous amount of different looks.”
Those looks are apparently weighing heavily on this coaching staff’s collective mind. While Virginia Tech and Miami displayed minor variations in their set defenses, Davis said the Gamecocks may use up to 12 different schemes, depending on down and distance and personnel groupings.
That confusion has led to success on the field this fall, as South Carolina has the nation’s top passing defense (126.5 yards per game) and the 16th-best scoring defense (16.83 points per game).
“This is a totally different conceptual picture,” Davis said. “We not played anybody thus far this year that lines up like South Carolina, from just a scheme standpoint. The way they deploy their people – it’s just totally different.
“And, thus, it’s going to take a lot of preparation by our offensive line, our running backs, our tight ends, our receivers, [and] everybody knowing their coverages and how the coverages fit with the fronts and what the protections are going to be. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
A strong defense combined with a Spurrier-led offense is enough to make any football fan take the Gamecocks serious, but South Carolina has not been dominant on the offensive side of the ball (360 yards per game is 78th nationally). Still, any time the Ol’ Ball Coach takes the field, opposing defenses better bring their best effort to the stadium.
“He is one of the best offensive coaches that has coached on college football,” Davis said. “But this year they are probably as balanced as any team that I’ve seen Steve have. We only played them one time [at Miami], but you would see them on film with film exchanges when we would play Florida State.
“We would watch some of the Florida film because we would steal some of the things that Florida did to play against Florida State because they would have some good ideas.”
It would be logical to assume that the two coaches have met numerous times on the football field, with both spending six years (’95-’00) in the Sunshine State for their previous respective programs. But in reality, the only time Davis and Spurrier matched wits between the lines was in the 2001 Sugar Bowl – a 37-20 victory by the Hurricanes over Spurrier’s Florida Gators.
Oddly enough, Davis and Alabama head coach Nick Saban acted as Spurrier’s assistants in the 2000 East-West All-Star game, an event that Butch recalled by simply saying, “That was an interesting week.”
Free safety Deunta Williams was recruited heavily by Spurrier before electing to stay in-state and play for Carolina. The red-shirt freshman was impressed with the Gamecock head coach, just as he has been with Davis.
“They have that professional aura about them – just winning is what it’s about, and I just like their attitude,” Williams said. “I think that’s the biggest change from last year – staying in games was the thing last year and we’re talking about winning games now.”
The primary difference in Saturday’s contest is that Spurrier is in his third year of turning the historically woeful South Carolina program around, while Davis has just begun his rebuilding project in Chapel Hill. Message boards have been clamoring for months about the importance of this game in the regional recruiting battles, but one single victory by either team won’t matter much come National Signing Day in February.
Davis pointed to playing time, quality education and chemistry with coaching staffs and players, as well as proximity for parents and family to travel to the games as being more important to recruits than a Saturday win or loss in October.
“There’s a half-dozen significant major factors, and I’m not sure how much any of it has to do with competition,” Davis said.
Regardless of the reasons, both fan bases have turned rabid heading into the Oct. 13 showdown in Chapel Hill. The victors will have bragging rights for seemingly an eternity, as this rivalry will not resume until a 2010 date in Columbia, S.C.