When the Miami Hurricanes joined the ACC entering the 2004 season, only the folks in Chapel Hill were circling the annual meeting with The U. To the Canes, just another conference game with the Tar Heels looking comparable to Pitt or Syracuse if Miami were still a member of the Big East.
Since then, the Canes backslid while the Tar Heels revamped their middle-of-the-road football program, making for a 2-2 split between the teams since 2004. In each case the home team has held court and got the "W".
Gone are the Larry Coker and John Bunting era. Right now it's all about Randy Shannon, Butch Davis - two guys with a rich Canes history - and an influx of talent on both sides that's given these programs some new life.
Miami and North Carolina enter Saturday's contest with matching 2-1 records and both are in position to make a run in the ACC's Coastal Division. The Heels will come ready to play, but all signs point to this being the Canes' time.
Last year's match up had a 4-1 Miami team headed to Chapel Hill, looking for a win but leaving with an embarrassing loss that proved to be the season's turning point. The Canes dropped five of their next six games after falling to the Heels, 33-27. The wheels were off and Miami simply couldn't recover with a first-year head coach and some damaged-beyond-repair players.
For those who've watched Miami work it's way to 2-1 early this season, you've seen a different brand of Hurricanes Football. 2007 is in the rear view. This is a rejuvenated, albeit 'green' squad. While some quality depth was added, thanks to a top-ranked recruiting class - in some cases, addition came from subtraction.
Last year's contest saw North Carolina jump out to a 27-0 lead, taking to a program that always prided itself on defense. Hardly the case in the short-lived Tim Walton era.
Outside of the 48-0 beatdown at the hands of Virginia in last year's Orange Bowl finale, nothing was more embarrassing than a 27-0 deficit at Kenan Stadium. Miami was 4-1 and proving doubters wrong... and then the wheels fell off.
The Canes made it respectable, going on a 20-0 tear in the third quarter, making it 27-20 entering the fourth, but two more field goals were the difference in the contest.
Miami only found the end zone once more in the game, while the real story of those final fifteen minutes was Kyle Wright tossing his third and fourth interceptions of the day - this last with over six minutes remaining and taking place on the UNC 3-yard line with a 1st-and-goal opportunity.
Walton and Wright are yesterday's news. Today's news is Bill Young and Robert Marve - currently the two most important cogs in the resurrection of Miami Football.
Young's defense was gangbusters against a solid Florida offense and did the job at Texas A&M last week, holding a 41-10 lead late in the third quarter before giving up a few late scores. Turnovers, gang tackling, pressuring the quarterback and a renewed energy are all traits of the current Canes' D.
Marve was masterful in his first win, going 16 of 22 for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns - and almost 17 of 22 for 278 yards and 3 scores had a Thearon Collier screen not been called back for a hold away from the play. #9 showed composure in the pocket, found his second and third receivers and when pressured, showed poise and found a way to get rid of the ball, making would-be negative plays into positive ones.
Miami lost last year's contest by less than a touchdown, thanks to a poor defensive game plan, worse execution and glaring issues regarding quarterback play.
This time around, the defense is rolling, the quarterback is ready and it's North Carolina who enters the contest with a few question marks - most notably, at quarterback. T.J. Yates injured his foot in a 20-17 loss to Virginia Tech last week, knocking him out for upwards of six weeks.
The Heels will play Mike Paulus and Cam Sexton - a r-freshman and a junior, who only threw one pass in 2007. Paulus also went 9 of 28 for 136 yards and 2 interceptions against the Canes two years ago in a 27-7 loss.
Some folks believe in the 'football gods', others don't. Personally, I'm a believer. When it's a team's time, so-called "lucky breaks" seem to go their way. Miami couldn't buy a break in 2007. North Carolina. Georgia Tech. NC State. All were winnable games for the Canes, but impossible to overcome when you spot the other guy 27, can't stop a running back in the second half and your quarterback has an unfathomable 1-of-14 outing, where you lose by three in overtime.
We'll see how 2008 plays out, but early on it seems the football gods are smiling down on the Canes a bit. The loss at Florida had a lopsided final score, but 9-3 going into the fourth quarter gave Miami some good press and will help come signing day as the nation's elite saw that the Canes aren't too far off.
Last week at Texas A&M showed that Miami is starting to click on offense, which hasn't been the case in a few years. Marve looks the real deal, Jacory Harris is proving to be a capable back up and Graig Cooper is looking like the superstar back many expected. Wide receivers are catching on and making plays, defense and specials teams are doing their job and the Canes looked much more complete in this year's contest against the Aggies, as compared to last season.
North Carolina is another turning-point game for Miami. Injuries aside, the Heels will come to play - looking to get a win for their former Canes coach, as well as to stay alive in ACC play where they suffered their first loss last week.
Defensively, UNC is strong, allowing a mere 32 points in back-to-back games against Rutgers and Virginia Tech and forcing six turnovers in three games. The Hokies only averaged three yards per carry against the Heels last weekend. Safeties Deunta Williams and Trimane Goddard will be roving, waiting for Marve to make a costly mistake.
Brandon Tate is a special teams guru for UNC and their go-to wideout. Tate has five touchdowns in the past three games, one coming on an 82-yard punt return in the opener against McNeese State. Also a deep ball threat, Tate has caught touchdowns of 57 and 69 yards, albeit both came from Yates who is sidelined.
Miami will most likely be without the services of defensive tackle Marcus Forston this weekend, as he hurt his arm against Texas A&M. Lacking some depth on the d-line, the Canes really can't afford the hit there, but will have to absorb the loss and pressure the young Carolina quarterbacks, regardless.
The Canes secondary looked spotty at times last week against the Aggies, allowing 275 passing yards by a back up quarterback. Jerrod Johnson's legs definitely helped buy some time, which won't be the case with Paulus or Sexton. Young's defense needs to rise to the occasion and correct some mistakes it made in a blowout win last week. Most notably, the secondary.
Without getting too philosophical, the stars seem aligned for a Miami win this week. It took one of those "everything that could go wrong, did go wrong" games last year for North Carolina to eke out a six-point win at home last year. Throw in four interceptions and a poor defensive game plan and the Canes handed the game to the Heels on a silver platter.
Such won't be the case in 2008. This time around is a high-noon kickoff at Dolphin Stadium with 85 degrees and scattered thunderstorms expected. Perfect Miami Football weather.
Gone are Walton and Wright, while a new-look Hurricanes squad seems to have arrived. The lack of Yates behind center gives Miami a distinct advantage in one of those 'turning point' games that can alter the season. Defense, special teams, turnovers and a short field for the Canes are the difference-maker this Saturday.
The Canes lost a few of those turning point-type of games last year, but should pull off a win against North Carolina, getting this thing to 3-1 with Florida State on deck.
Miami 30, North Carolina 16