College Football: UNC-Notre Dame preview

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 10, 2008

Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL ó North Carolina’s decade-long rebuilding project finally is showing signs of traction, complete with the Tar Heels’ first national ranking in seven years. The biggest thing missing right now for coach Butch Davis’ club is a win against a big-name opponent.
Notre Dame and its storied tradition certainly provides the opportunity, not to mention quite a buzz considering the Fighting Irish are making their first trip to the state in more than three decades.
In that sense, Saturday’s matchup is about a lot more than just one game ó even if Davis wants to treat it that way. It’s symbolic of whether the No. 22 Tar Heels really are as good as the number in front of their name implies, and whether they are ready to handle the kind of prosperity that hasn’t been seen here in a long time.
“We’re enjoying it, no doubt,” said Cameron Sexton, North Carolina’s former third-string and now starting quarterback. “Football is a lot of hard work and to have success now, we’re definitely enjoying it. But on the flip side … we’ve gone back to work on Notre Dame. You’ve got to enjoy the wins and stop thinking about the losses. We’ve moved on now.”
North Carolina (4-1) easily beat previously unbeaten Connecticut last weekend for their first win against a ranked team in three seasons. One day later, North Carolina earned its first ranking since appearing at No. 22 for one week before a loss at Georgia Tech during the 2001 season. Now the Tar Heels are preparing for their first home game as a ranked team in a decade, a sign of how badly things have gone since Mack Brown departed for Texas at the end of the 1997 season.
It’s the kind of progress fans have expected since Davis was hired in 2006, and it validates some of the early optimism that had the Tar Heels picked to challenge Virginia Tech in their ACC division race. Yet while his team has won two straight since losing starting QB T.J. Yates to injury, Davis has been quick to brush off questions about the significance of a midseason ranking.
“The ranking is nice, I’m not going to deny that,” he said. “I think everybody likes the fact that there is some recognition for the hard work and the things we’re doing and the direction of the program. But as far as the significance right now, it really doesn’t have much.”
It certainly won’t if the Fighting Irish ó unranked for the first time in their history after a 4-1 start ó come into Chapel Hill and continue their dominance in the series. Notre Dame has won 16 of 17 meetings, including a 45-26 home win two years ago, and is looking for the same kind of momentum-building win that the Tar Heels are seeking.
“I could see a lot of things where these programs are heading into the same direction because there’s a lot of young, good athletes that are getting into the mix,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “And obviously we’re two different schemes and all that other stuff. But as far as personnel goes, I mean they’ve done a nice job recruiting and they’re not afraid to play the young guys. And I’d like to say that’s very similar to how we think.”
Like North Carolina, Notre Dame is coming in with two straight wins.