Preview Liberty at North Carolina
GAME NOTES: The 23rd-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels will kick off their 2014 season at home Saturday evening, as they welcome FCS opponent the Liberty Flames to Kenan Stadium.
Liberty enjoyed a strong season in the Big South Conference in 2013, finishing 8-4 while earning a share of the league title with Coastal Carolina with a 4-1 mark in conference play. It was the second time in as many years the Flames earned a share of the championship under head coach Turner Gill, but for the second straight year they were held out of the FCS playoffs.
At the beginning of Larry Fedora's second season as head coach, UNC appeared in store for a disastrous campaign, as it opened up with losses in five of its first six matchups, but things turned around in a hurry beginning in late October with the squad ripping off a five-game winning streak to earn bowl eligibility. The Tar Heels' run came to an end in the regular season finale against Duke with a 27-25 defeat, but they still earned a bid to the Belk Bowl, where they downed Cincinnati, 39-17, to finish with a winning record for the sixth consecutive season.
This marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs. In fact, Liberty has never before played a nationally-ranked FBS team.
Liberty's offensive attack last season was strong, as it put up 37.2 ppg and 420.8 ypg while converting third downs at nearly a 50-percent rate. The return of most of its top playmakers should ensure similar success this season, although UNC's defense will likely be its most difficult task of the year.
Josh Woodrum was a Second-Team All-Conference selection a season ago after completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,581 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions to go with an additional five rushing scores. Woodrum has been a starter since his freshman season and should continue to progress as a junior.
At running back, Desmond Rice (967 yards, 16 TDs) will miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing offseason knee surgery. D.J. Abnar (411 yards, six TDs) will be expected to step into the full-time role in the backfield.
Woodrum is fortunate enough to have his three top receiving targets back after building up a strong rapport with Darrin Peterson (58 receptions, 825 yards, seven TDs), Gabe Henderson (47 receptions, three TDs) and Dante Shells (29 receptions, 432 yards, TD).
The Flames' defense was just as responsible for their success last season as their offense. The unit allowed only 17.6 ppg and 313.9 ypg and forced 26 turnovers.
Liberty has plenty of talented playmakers vying for All-Conference honors this season, including defensive end Chima Uzowihe (9.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks), safety Jacob Hagen (61 tackles, six INTs), cornerback Kenny Scott (45 tackles, three INTs) and linebacker Nick Sigmon (62 tackles, 10.5 TFL, INT).
Even with an injury to quarterback Bryn Renner last season, UNC still had a very successful offensive year, posting 32.7 ypg and 425.7 ypg, and expectations are so high in Durham this season party because the unit welcomes back nine starters.
Marquise Williams was inserted into the starting lineup in 2013 and performed better than anyone expected, passing for 1,698 yards, rushing for 536 yards and accounting for 21 total touchdowns while throwing only six interceptions. Despite Williams' strong play, he was pushed hard for the starting gig by redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky during training camp.
Fedora is still mum on who will be start the opener, but he figures both signal callers to have prominent roles this season regardless of who officially wins the job.
"I'll tell you, Mitch and Marquise, both of them, first of all, both can beat you with their legs, (and) both can beat you with their arms," the head coach said. "They're both very intelligent kids. Marquise obviously has the most experience of the two, and he came in under some tough circumstances last year and did a great job for us.
"They have done a tremendous job pushing each other," he continued. "I'm excited to see how this thing shakes out."
T.J. Logan is back as the lead running back. He ran for 533 yards and four touchdowns on only 93 carries a year ago (5.7 ypc).
Although tight end and leading receiver Eric Ebron (62 receptions, 973 yards, three TDs) was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, the pass-catching crew is still plenty deep with the return of Quinshad Davis (48 receptions, 730 yards, 10 TDs) and Ryan Switzer (32 receptions, 341 yards, three TDs).
The defense, which allowed 24.5 ppg and 403.2 ypg in 2013, may not have the same type of continuity as the offense, but it still appears to be in good shape with the return of seven starters.
The strength of the unit comes at linebacker, where Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles) and Travis Hughes (76 tackles) anchor what could be one of the ACC's best linebacking corps.
Norkeithus Otis (13.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks) is the team's best pass rusher, but he'll likely be in store for more double teams now that Kareem Martin (21.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks) has moved on.
The young and talented secondary consists of returning starters Tim Scott (49 tackles, two INTs), Dominique Green (59 tackles, three INTs) and Malik Simmons (47 tackles), with Scott the only senior of the bunch.
UNC surprised some by sneaking into the preseason AP poll, but with so much returning talent, an improvement upon last season's success seems inevitable as it flirts with an eight- or nine-win campaign. Liberty may be a force at the FCS level, but it will be hard-pressed to get anything going in a hostile road environment against a very good Tar Heels squad.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: North Carolina 42, Liberty 17