There are many reasons why ACC football teams traditionally don't get much respect, but the best explanation is that they generally don't play very well. Oh, sure, the schools look impressive when they face each other—Duke vs. Wake Forest, Virginia vs. Clemson—but when they venture out into the big, bad world to confront heavyweights from the Big Ten or the Southwest Conference or the SEC, reality tends to set in early and often.
The proof is in the numbers. Since 1961, a member of the ACC has gone to a major bowl exactly one time. That was the Cotton Bowl after the 1976 season, when Maryland took advantage of the rare national exposure to lose to Houston 30-21. Two years later, vowing to redeem itself and show that its conference does play good ball, Maryland snorted off to a minor bowl (the Sun) to teach Texas a lesson. The Longhorns won, 42-0. When the ACC does succeed against outsiders—as it did in Clemson's 16-10 win over Notre Dame in 1979—it's always regarded as an upset.
Ah, but that may all be passè. Today in Chapel Hill, excitement is abuilding—albeit with many crossed fingers—because North Carolina just may have the stuff that gains genuine respect, for itself and for the ACC. And there's good reason for the optimism. After all, by trouncing archrival North Carolina State 28-8 on Saturday, the Tar Heels went 6-0, their best start since 1948 when they also went 6-0. And with such a splendid performance, the Tar Heels may improve on their No. 8 AP ranking, the highest they've had since the middle of the 1949 season. Says John Swofford, Carolina's athletic director, "Expectations are awfully high around here."
So high that there's even talk that the Tar Heels could find themselves in the chase for the national championship. The University of North Carolina contending for the national football championship? Well, deflate my basketball, but it could happen. Consider this: if Carolina keeps rolling behind its extraordinary defense—the first-team defenders have yet to give up a touchdown—and if it should whip Oklahoma next week and finish the season undefeated, perhaps it will wind up playing a top-ranked team, maybe even Alabama, in a bowl game.
It's a long shot but it's fair to dream, especially when you haven't been close to greatness since the '40s when Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice was running wild out of the Tar Heel single wing and onto all the big magazine covers.
The excitement didn't come to Chapel Hill overnight. Coach Dick Crum arrived on the scene for the 1978 season and led the Tar Heels to a 5-6 record. Boo, went the faithful. Then in 1979, which may be remembered as a watershed season, Crum orchestrated an 8-3-1 record, along the way handing Pitt its only loss. Even better was whipping Michigan in the Gator Bowl—an upset, naturally. Hooray, went the faithful. Those two wins set the tone for this season and demonstrated that the ACC in general and North Carolina in particular doesn't always faint at the sight of the biggies. Happily, fans have caught Carolina Fever bad. In 1976 home attendance averaged 37,000. Each year since 1978 every seat has been sold—49,500 per game—before the season opener. On Saturday the crowd was a squished-in 51,845, a record.
What they saw was a North Carolina defense that so far has been positively scary. Indeed, Wolfpack Coach Monte Kiffin was saying before the game that "when you play a team with a defense like Carolina's, what you try to do is get them off your schedule." No such luck. But Kiffin was prophetic, because three of the four Tar Heel touchdowns were set up by the defense. North Carolina Defensive Coordinator Denny Marcin downplayed his unit's achievements, saying, "Ah, we're not a great defense, but we have a chance to be good. All we try to do is improve each week, just poke along." It was his big grin, however, that spoke the truth. Within that solid defensive unit is one Lawrence Taylor, outside linebacker, who spends his Saturday afternoons—and this one in particular—marauding, hitting, smashing, disrupting and terrorizing. "The thing about Taylor," says Marcin, "is he's soooo nasty."
Several times Taylor, a 6'3", 238-pound senior from Williamsburg, Va., didn't just tackle North Carolina State Quarterback Tol Avery, he crumpled him. Taylor is so intimidating that the opposition tries to stay away from him as much as possible so as to avoid incurring his wrath. But Taylor, who was far from being a star until midway through last season, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"Actually, I'm not sure I'm all that good," he says. "But I do know you've got to be able and willing to hit. And you've got to have a little killer instinct. There is nothing better in life than a violent head-on collision. Look, football is supposed to be a rough game and not everybody is supposed to be able to play. So if I knock a guy silly, he'll be wondering where I am and what I'm going to do to him the next time he runs my way. A lot of things just happen when I'm playing defense. I don't plan anything."
Against the rush, North Carolina gave up only 130 yards Saturday, while allowing 295 yards in total offense. A fair hunk of those totals was allowed by substitutes. The Tar Heels are now ranked 10th nationally in total defense, having given up 230.7 yards per game, and first in scoring defense, allowing only six points on the average.
But those superior defensive stats are only one indication that Carolina is a good team getting better. The Heels are also very opportunistic. With their offense still a little draggy—the much-heralded Famous Amos Lawrence was held to a mere 49 yards rushing by the Wolf-pack—Steve Streater went back to punt with 8:36 to go in the second quarter of an 0-0 game. But observing an end peel back, leaving only a slow-footed tackle to rush, Streater tucked the ball under his arm and ran 37 yards untouched for a TD. "I'd like to do that every time I go back to punt," says Streater. In fact, Crum often gives him the license to run.
This play so unnerved N.C. State that Avery fumbled on the first play of the ensuing series when he was folded, spindled and mutilated by Tar Heel Left Tackle Donnell Thompson, who says, "I'll tell you what comes to my mind when I'm getting ready to make a hit like that—winning." Moments later, from the Wolfpack 22, sophomore Quarterback Rod Elkins passed to Split End Victor Harrison for the score. That made it 14-0, and State wasn't going to score 14 points against the Tar Heel defense if the two teams kept playing till the dogwoods bloomed again. North Carolina scored twice more in the second half before allowing State a meaningless TD near the end.
Despite the outstanding defensive effort, Crum said after the game, "I'm not ready to say just how good this defense is. I want to wait a little bit longer." Such caution is understandable what with the Sooners waiting in Norman. But some teams never succeed big because they don't dream big. That prompts Center Rick Donnalley to say, "We're a Top 10 football team. We know that. And each week we find out more and more about ourselves. We can be as good as we want to be."