Thursday, September 07, 2006

Come out to Kenan to support Heels

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 2nd, 2006:

One of the things I've found most surprising during my four years in Chapel Hill is the empty seats in Kenan Stadium. It may be because I went to high school across the street from a 100,000-plus capacity stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., that has not seen an empty seat in more than 30 years. Still, there is big-time football going on in town six or seven Saturdays every year, and it would be nice to see more support for the team from the community.

The season kicks off today against Rutgers at 3:30, and so does the opportunity for local residents to start attending games in greater numbers.

The good news is that there are already a couple games this year that the stadium has filled up for. Virginia Tech and North Carolina State tickets are sold out, at least in part because of large numbers of opposition fans buying up seats.

The other two ACC home games are against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. The game against the Demon Deacons seems like it should get a pretty good crowd from in-state fans, and the matchup with the Yellow Jackets produces a memorable outcome every year.

It seems then that the games most likely to have trouble getting people in seats will be the nonconference ones against Rutgers today, Furman in two weeks, and South Florida next month.

A Herald-Sun report indicated that UNC has had the hardest schedule of any program in the country aggregated over the past five years.

Part of that is by design -- when the Athletic Department scheduled games against teams like Texas, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, an uphill battle had to be anticipated.

It has also been partially because of happenstance, though. Many of the teams the Tar Heels have scheduled ended up being far better than anticipated. Who could have known that Louisville, which destroyed us the past two years, would develop into one of the country's strongest programs? Or that when a trip was scheduled to Utah two years ago they would turn out to be a top-five team?

This year's slate continues that trend. When Rutgers, South Florida and Furman were scheduled, it had to look like three easy wins for the Heels. Now it looks like three games that should provide closely matched action.

Rutgers has been one of the worst programs in a BCS conference over the past decade. But Coach Greg Schiano seems to finally have them on the right track. Taking advantage of the exodus of some of the Big East's strongest teams to the ACC last year, the Scarlet Knights put together a surprising season punctuated with a bowl trip. They are expected to have a similarly strong team this year and should be pretty evenly matched with UNC today.

Furman is not even a Division I-A team, but after getting thrashed by the Paladins at Kenan in 1999, the Tar Heels know they will have to take this game seriously.

Furman continues to be a I-AA powerhouse. They lost in the national semifinals last year to eventual champion Appalachian State, who will hopefully embarrass N.C. State today. This is another game that should provide some pretty strong competition for UNC.

South Florida flirted with a bid in a BCS bowl for much of last season before falling off at the end of the year and facing off against the Wolfpack at the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.

They should have another solid if not spectacular showing this season and most projections have them pretty evenly matched with the Tar Heels -- not bad for a team that's been playing in Division I-A for less than 10 years.

It was cool when Texas came to town four falls ago. I enjoyed seeing Louisville play two years ago. There wasn't too much trouble selling tickets for those games. But UNC was done by the end of the first half in each of them.

The teams on this year's slate might not be as fancy as those, but they also provide the chance for fans to see UNC win against quality teams. It's more exciting to see competitive games against middle-class teams than to see blowouts at the hands of top-level programs -- all the better to turn out for these games.

It looks like this might be the best Tar Heel football team since the first one of John Bunting's tenure. There has been significant improvement over the past two seasons, and things are finally coming together for the team. With another tough schedule, though, they will need all the fan support they can get. I hope I'll see you today and throughout the fall at Kenan Stadium!

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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