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September 4, 2012North Carolina didn't exactly get thrown into the frying pan in Saturday's season opener as they cruised to a 62-0 victory past overmatched Elon, but they're certainly getting thrown into the fire this Saturday, as they take to the road for its Atlantic Coast Conference regular season opener at Wake Forest.
Wake Forest struggled in its opener, barely holding on to beat Liberty 20-17, but the Demon Deacons are always a tough out at BB&T Field, and they've got a veteran defense that could make life quite difficult for Carolina's new offense unless they're ready to play.
"Going on the road in the league is always something that's difficult. So for us it's trying to keep, whether it's a home game or an away game, everything's the same. Our preparation throughout the week, our preparation on Friday, is exactly the same whether it's home or away," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora Monday. "So hopefully that helps as we get into a routine."
"We can't take any game lightly. We've got to prepare like it's the Super Bowl every week," added quarterback Bryn Renner.
While both UNC and Wake faced opponents that most considered inferior to them in their respective openers, the days of loading up several early games against lesser opponents before entering conference play are gone.
Ask Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, who endured a slugfest in Blacksburg Monday night in a game that very well could have shaped the entire ACC Coastal Division race in early September.
"It's kind of weird. You don't get those tune-up games anymore. You've kind of got to just jump right into it, and that's what Coach Fedora has been preaching. We've got to be on our toes because these games matter. The conference games are huge. Not saying the other games aren't, but you put more emphasis on the conference games," said Renner.
"Definitely we've got to prepare. It's tough having it (the ACC opener) early in the season, because we only have one game under our belt, and for the starting offense, we have only a half under our belt. So the practices leading up to the game (will determine) how we play."
"Hopefully 'getting up for it' is not a problem. It's the next game. It's the next opportunity. That's the culture we're trying to establish. It doesn't matter who you play, when you play them, where you play them, what time you play them. It's the next opportunity. And so you get yourself prepared to play throughout this week," added Coach Fedora.
UNC's next opportunity comes against a Wake Forest squad that got another taste of the postseason last fall, and was actually within a field goal down in Death Valley of going to overtime against Clemson and potentially representing the ACC Atlantic in last December's conference championship game.
Ask anybody that goes to Winston-Salem how tough it is to beat the Demon Deacons at home when they're playing well. Ask Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. Ask N.C. State's Tom O'Brien. Ask former UNC head coach Butch Davis, whose first Tar Heel team back in 2007 was humbled 37-10 by the Old Gold and Black.
Ask North Carolina's own Vic Koenning, who was part of a Clemson staff that lost to Wake Forest in 2008 at BB&T Field that wound up being Tommy Bowden's final game with the Tigers.
And even though the Deacs didn't play particularly well against Liberty, the Tar Heels should expect a completely different team this week.
"First of all, Jim (Grobe) does a great job with his team, and they're always well prepared. I've known that for a long time, and have always heard great things about Jim. I've followed him," said Fedora. "His kids are going to play hard. They're going to be sound. They're going to move quite a bit up front defensively."
Fedora and the Tar Heel players showed respect to the Demon Deacon players, who they've been watching on film in recent days and hours.
"We got great film from when they played Liberty, so we're watching that and trying to get the best read possible. They're very fast and very physical," said Renner. "Nikita Whitlock, the nose guard, I got a chance to meet him at the ACC Media Day. The kid plays really, really hard."
"I played against Mike Olson, one of their linebackers, in high school, and Zach Thompson, their defensive linemen. They both play hard."
"They've got a big offensive line. And they've got a quarterback (Tanner Price) with experience," added senior defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.
"They've got a receiver (Michael Campanaro) I understand that is a really good player in the league, and he made a lot of players for him last year. So they find a lot of ways to get him the ball," added Coach Fedora.
"What I've looked at in the kicking game, (they're) sound. The kids play hard. They're aggressive. They get after it."
"They've got a new kicker this year, who put I think four out of five in the end zone the other day (for touchbacks), so he's obviously got a strong leg. So it will obviously be a tough time."
Just as UNC's offense held a lot of stuff back in its season opener to unleash on Wake Forest, the Tar Heels can expect to see a bunch of different things in the Demon Deacons on Saturday that wasn't on the Liberty film.
That's just a part of the game---not only the disguising and saving of plays and formations, but also the all-important advancement of a football team between the first and second games of the season.
"They're definitely going to have different schemes for us. I'm sure of that," Renner said.
Wake Forest's players don't have to be reminded of last year's 49-24 Tar Heel romp in Kenan Stadium, and the revenge factor is something that UNC will have to potentially overcome on Saturday.
"They're going to come and give us our best shot. They did last year. It was a close game there for a little bit, and we kind of got the best of them," said Renner. "Anytime you beat a team, they're going to want revenge---especially at home. We know we're going to have to bring our best game, because they're going to bring theirs."
"I want to go ahead and dominate these guys up front," added Williams. "At the end of the day, Wake Forest, they've got a great team, but North Carolina, we've also got a great team. We're going to bring our best and they're going to bring their best."
Fortunately for UNC, bringing their best on Saturday will include sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard, who was held out in the second half as a precaution this past weekend but will be good to go for the Wake game.
"I feel good now. I'm ready to go. I feel pretty good. I'm ready to go. Just going out there, being able to play, playing healthy and playing happy is my biggest thing," Bernard.
Needless to say, Saturday is huge for UNC football on multiple levels.
The all-important opportunity to go 1-0 in ACC play comes along only once a year, and getting that valuable conference momentum heading into a three-game series of non-conference September tilts could send a strong message around the ACC that despite its postseason probation, the 2012 Tar Heels are here to play.
"I'm pumped, because the ACC is where you get your bread and butter at, so I'm excited to go out here and put the new schemes to work against Wake Forest, and let the ACC know that Carolina football is here," said Williams.