Illinois hits the road for the first time this season, travelling to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to face the Tar Heels. To help us get a pseudo-accurate idea of what the game has in store, News & Observer (Charlotte/Raleigh) beat writer Andrew Carter answered some truly insightful questions. Thanks to Mr. Carter for taking time to do so.
Smile Politely: A lot has been made about Illinois scheduling easier non-conference games in recent years, so on a scale of the MACtion of Kent State (Illini won 52-3) and the FCS juggernaut Western Illinois (Illini won 44-0), how bad is UNC?
Andrew Carter: Hmm. An excellent question. I think you'd have to think UNC is significantly better than those teams, but one of the joys of September college football is we don't know how good any of these teams are, really. Who knows? Defensively UNC looks a lot better than it did last season, which isn't saying all that much because of how bad it was. The bar was pretty low. Entering the season I thought nine regular-season wins was probably UNC's ceiling. I suppose that's still possible but it doesn't seem all that likely after the opening-game loss against South Carolina (13-17). Though it's a new year, the way UNC often imploded last season — it had a real tendency to get blown out — is still somewhat fresh. The South Carolina game didn't do anything to erase those memories. How bad or good is UNC? I don't know. All I know is that it's been awhile since it put together a good, complete game against a decent team.
SP: Does having a coach named Larry Fedora make your team as douchey as a guy wearing a fedora? Or does all the argyle take care of that?
Carter: Such judgments. But since you asked: As a guy who appreciates fashion and style, I'm not sure fedora-wearers would go for much argyle. Maybe I'm wrong on that but it seems like the fedora crowd would shun argyle, and vice versa. So maybe this conflict is a part of this program's problem. On a serious note, though, I actually respect the argyle. I respect it so much I wrote me a little story about it that we ran during the dog days of summer. I encourage you all to look it up by Googling my name and “argyle.” Prepare to be captivated by the history of UNC's use of it. Fedora the coach, by the way, doesn't seem like much of a fedora the hat kind of guy. When it comes to discussing player injuries, though, the hat and the coach are probably equally as illuminating.
SP: Gene Chizik went from coach of a national champion at Auburn to defensive coordinator of the team that lost to Rutgers in a bowl last year; is he secretly serving a punishment, like when Michael Jordan had to play baseball for a few years because of his gambling problem?
Carter: It was probably punishment enough for him to endure what he did during that his last season at Auburn, which had to be pretty miserable. I wrote a pretty big feature story on him that ran before the start of the season and we talked for a while about his time at Auburn and how it ended. A lot of college coaches get paid a lot of money and it's easy to be cynical about the whole enterprise but, man, I wouldn't want to be the head coach of a losing team in Small Town, SEC. Chizik seems like a pretty tough, grounded guy – his father was a decorated marine in WWII, and Chizik learned everything from his dad – but what went down at Auburn took a big toll on his family, it sounds like, and especially on his kids. It seems like it was good for him to get out of coaching for a bit, hit the reset button and start over. And relative to the insanity of the SEC, UNC does offer a less stressful environment and Chapel Hill really is an excellent place to live. So I can see why this job was attractive to him.
SP: Was keeping a running back on a career high out of the game in the red zone against South Carolina Fedora’s way of expressing his respect for noted 9/11 truther Pete Carroll (who refused to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the goalline in Super Bowl XLIX)?
Carter: Larry is so good to us beat hacks, I just think that was his way of being kind enough to give us something to write about for several days. In hindsight it was certainly a bizarre personnel move. And Fedora's explanations for it didn't make a lot of sense, which I wrote about (as did others). But the bottom line is this: If UNC executes properly and if Marquise Williams, a fifth-year senior quarterback, doesn't throw his second interception of the game in the end zone, then it's a moot point. Elijah Hood, the running back you reference, probably should have been in there sooner and probably should have gotten the ball but it's easy to say that now. There's blame to go around on that one, though the coach always bears the most responsibility.
SP: In the media guide, North Carolina hyped the shit out of quarterback Marquise Williams (even going so far as to say he was about as good as Jameis Winston), and then last week Fedora started to rotate Williams and backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Does Fedora really have a game plan or is he out there winging it?
Carter: It'd be great if he were winging it, wouldn't it? I wonder how long any college coach could get away with that before it could be proven. I understand Fedora's reasoning behind that one, though. He wanted to give Trubisky some reps that counted and wanted to make sure he got in the game early. So Fedora decided before that game that Trubisky would go in on UNC's third series, which happened to begin on its opponent's 2-yard line. Trubisky and Marquise Williams had this funky quarterback rotation going during the first half of last season, and it (mostly) didn't work. Williams was the starter but Trubisky would come in on the third series. Neither guy looked comfortable. I'd be surprised if what we saw on Saturday was anything more than just a one-game thing. Of course, if Williams has any more games like the one he did against South Carolina, you never know.
SP: UNC returned 99.5% of its total offense from last year and brought in Chizik, but opponents have had more time of possession and scored 10 times more than Illinois’ opponents on average. Is this just what happens when you play football at a basketball school?
Carter: The time of possession stat is always going to be skewed because of UNC's tempo. UNC could average 50 points per game and still lose time of possession by a significant margin. It's just the nature of the Tar Heels' offense, which is best described as go-go-go. It's no-huddle and fast and designed not to allow a defense any chance to rest – or even, at times, to substitute. Sometimes, though, this works against UNC. It did last season, for one, because its defense had to spend a lot of time on the field. Which wasn't good. Second, the tempo can lead to situations in which UNC doesn't like to substitute, which was part of the issue that caused problems on its final possession against South Carolina.
SP: Tar Heel is a term that was for a while considered derogatory, but later appropriated with pride by North Carolinians. Does that make the nickname Tar Heels the bizarro version of Chief Illiniwek, who is still viewed with pride despite being obviously racist?
Carter: I guess you could perhaps make that comparison. There's no universally accepted origin story behind the Tar Heel name, though certainly there are variations of how it came to be. As a history geek, the stories behind the name are pretty fascinating to me, actually, and there's a good breakdown of the whole thing here:https://alumni.unc.edu/what-is-a-tar-heel/…. It's interesting that the term, as you note, was considered derogatory way back when. The New York Tribune article posted in that above link basically implied that “tar heels” were lazy, work-averse people. (I'm surprised rival fans haven't used this against UNC somehow.) Eventually, though, the positive connotation of the phrase won out and it became a point of pride among North Carolinians. I'm just glad I don't cover a school subject to mascot controversy. I've been through that before, a bit, when I covered Florida State.
SP: If UNC spent less time making it’s field look pretty and more time practicing, would they be 2-0?
Carter: I'd have to think so, yes. I bet Fedora really regrets all the time he had his guys spend on drawing numbers in the grass. They also tried on way too much.
SP: How many points does Illinois win by, or what’s your prediction for this game?
Carter: I think UNC wins, actually. I'll say 31-28, or some other similarly generic close-game score. I do think it'll be close. This is actually a pretty big game for UNC, but a loss would be way more catastrophic than a win would be helpful. I'm not sure why, but UNC fans and a lot of media people down here seem to think that UNC should just show up and get it done. I'm not sure why that perception exists. To me these teams are very similar. They both had the same record last year. They both returned a lot of players. Yeah, Illinois is in disarray with the coaching situation, but if Beckman was as crazy as these stories make it seem then that's probably addition by subtraction. I think UNC wins, in part because Illinois was indeed terrible on the road last season, but I don't see it being easy.
Carter: Illinois could probably take that banner back home this weekend if it wants to hire some N.C. State fan mercenaries to help pry it out of the Smith Center rafters. You think I'm joking…
Lead image by Robert Willett/AP; Fedora image from goheels.com; Williams image from starnewsonline.com. UNC and Illinois kick-off at 11 a.m. (Central) on Saturday from Chapel Hill. The game will be televised on ESPN2. Follow Andrew Carter on Twitter (@_andrewcarter) for in-game updates.