by Mike Potter
If UNC football coach Butch Davis had to take a polygraph test, it would probably show he’s really looking forward to the end of Saturday night’s season opener with No. 21 LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Kick Off Classic at the Georgia Dome.
The past few weeks have been a nightmare for the No. 18 Tar Heels, as first the NCAA was on campus involving several players’ possible involvement with agents in violation of NCAA rules before a second fire broke out about an academic scandal.
The team has been off-limits to the media for several days, coaches and administrators haven’t done much talking and everyone interested in the program wants to know which players won’t be getting on the bus this morning to start the trip to Atlanta. UNC isn’t going to take any chances with dressing a player who might later be found ineligible, and those under such questions aren’t even going to make the trip.
About the only things everyone knows for sure is that star defensive tackle Marvin Austin has been suspended indefinitely for unspecified violations of team rules and that the unscathed T.J. Yates will indeed start at quarterback.
With various reports saying that as many as 16 players’ eligibility for Saturday may be in question for one reason or another, the media and the public aren’t going to know for sure which Tar Heels will be in uniform until they take the field for their final pregame warm-ups.
The 8 p.m. game is one of the three openers for the Triangle’s ACC teams tonight, and the starting times are an hour apart. The other two teams will be taking on FCS members at home, with N.C. State hosting heavy underdog Western Carolina at 6 p.m. and Duke taking on what should be a much stiffer challenge against Elon at 7.
The Tar Heels certainly face the longest odds of any of the three local teams tonight, and if Davis can guide UNC to a victory after so many preseason problems it may be one of his better game coaching jobs ever.
“It’s total speculation,” Davis said of the number of players in question. “I know our administration is working with the NCAA to try to come to some kind of resolution on the matter, and as quickly as they do then we’ll know a lot more from a perspective football-wise and certainly university-wise.
“We’ve asked our players to come to practice, stay focused, watch film and try to create as normal an environment as possible. … I think our kids have done a good job putting it in perspective. They’ve come to practice during training camp and they’ve worked hard and they’re turned their attention 7-8 days ago to this game against LSU.”
Duke is replacing a passel of defensive starters, but returns a receiving corps that might be the ACC’s best. One big question is how new starting quarterback Sean Renfree will perform in replacing the school’s all-time passing leader Thaddeus Lewis.
“We’re looking forward to playing,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s been a fun camp because we’ve worked really hard, had a lot of time on the practice field and probably more scrimmage snaps in camp than at any time in my career. Certainly we needed that because we have so many guys who haven’t played before.
“We’re starting out against a really good Elon team; they’re certainly well-coached and they have one of the better players we might play against in Scott Riddle, their quarterback. It’s a big challenge for us in the opener.”
The Wolfpack has one of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks returning in Russell Wilson, but will need better overall defense to get Coach Tom O’Brien his first winning season at the helm.
“We’ve had a very productive camp and I think this football team is excited about the opportunity to play,” O’Brien said. “I understand that Western Carolina will be excited to come over to Raleigh and Coach (Dennis) Wagner will have his team ready to play. …
“It doesn’t matter who the opening game is. It’s important to us that anybody who has ‘Carolina’ in their name is a big and unique game for us at North Carolina State (and) you only get one chance at a first impression.”
(All records and stats from 2009)
N.C. State vs. Western Carolina
[Saturday, 6 p.m., Carter-Finley Stadium]
NCSU leads series 5-0.
Records: NCSU 5-7; WCU 2-9.
Audio: WRAL-FM 101.5, XM 192, CatamountSports.com.
Coaches’ records — NCSU: Tom O’Brien 91-66, 16-21 at NCSU; WCU: Dennis Wagner 49-55-1, 5-18 at WCU.
Leading rushers — NCSU: Russell Wilson 103-481, 4 TD; WCU: Michael Johnson 150-596, 4 TD.
Leading passers — NCSU: Russell Wilson 224-378-11-3021, 31 TD; WCU: Zack Jaynes 178-304-9-1790, 9 TD.
Leading receivers — NCSU: Owen Spencer 30-765, 5 TD; WCU: Marquel Pittman 50-619, 5 TD.
Leading tacklers —— NCSU: Audie Cole 85; WCU: Ricky Schwarz and Mitchell Bell 67.
Favorite — NCSU by 28 ½ (Dunkel Index).
Duke vs. No. 7 (FCS) Elon
[Saturday, 7 p.m., Wallace Wade Stadium]
Duke leads series 5-0-1.
Records: Duke 5-7; Elon 9-3.
Audio: WDNC 620, WRBZ 850, WPCM 920, XM 190.
Coaches’ records — Duke: David Cutcliffe 53-44, 9-15 at Duke; Elon: Pete Lembo 73-31, 29-17 at Elon.
Leading rushers — Duke: Desmond Scott 70-285, 1 TD; Elon: Jamal Shuman 133-700, 3 TD.
Leading passers — Duke: Sean Renfree 34-50-2-330, 4 TD; Elon: Scott Riddle 285-439-7-3345, 23 TD.
Leading receivers — Duke: Donovan Varner 65-1047, 8 TD; Elon: Lance Camp 45-585, 0 TD.
Leading tacklers —— Duke: Matt Daniels 83; Elon: Joshua Jones 89.
Favorite — Duke by 8 ½ (Dunkel Index).
No. 18 UNC vs. No. 21 Louisiana State
[Saturday, 8 p.m., Georgia Dome, Atlanta]
LSU leads series 5-1.
Records: UNC 8-5; LSU 9-4.
Audio: WCHL 1360, WRDU-FM 106.1, XM 191, Sirius 213; LSUSports.net.
Coaches’ records — UNC: Butch Davis 71-38, 20-18 at UNC; LSU: Les Miles 79-35, 51-14 at LSU.
Leading rushers — UNC: Ryan Houston 191-733, 9 TD; LSU: Russell Shepard 45-294, 2 TD.
Leading passers — UNC: T.J. Yates 214-355-2136-15, 14 TD; LSU: Jordan Jefferson 182-296-7-2166.
Leading receivers — UNC: Greg Little 62-724, 5 TD; LSU: Terrence Toliver 53-735, 3 TD.
Leading tacklers —— UNC: Quan Sturdivant 79; LSU: Kelvin Sheppard 110.
Favorite — LSU by 1 ½ (Vegas line).