(Sports Network) An intriguing 2010 season-opener takes place in Atlanta this weekend, as 21st-ranked LSU takes on 18th-ranked North Carolina in the Chick- fil-A Kickoff Game.
Les Miles may be on the hot seat in Death Valley this year, despite posting a rather productive 51-15 mark in his five previous seasons at the helm. The team finished last year with nine victories, but narrow losses to the likes of Florida and national champion Alabama during the regular season and a heart- breaking 19-17 setback to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl, stung and left the team feeling like it had not accomplished much by LSU standards.
The Tar Heels on the other hand, continue to improve under the leadership of head coach Butch Davis, who enters his fourth season in Chapel Hill. Behind a stellar defense, UNC posted a second consecutive eight-win campaign and played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and although it resulted in a 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh, it did mark back-to-back postseason berths for the Tar Heels for the first time in 10 years.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, the school has declared six players ineligible for this game for violations of school or NCAA rules, and will keep six others out of opener while the investigation continues.
Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who had already been suspended by Davis for violating team rules, was one of the players ruled ineligible. The others are cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney, wide receiver Greg Little and defensive ends Michael McAdoo and Robert Quinn.
This is the seventh all-time meeting between these two teams. The Tar Heels captured the first-ever meeting in 1948. LSU has won five in a row since then, including a 30-3 rout in Baton Rouge in the last meeting in 1986.
The main problem for LSU a year ago was a stagnant offense that ranked as the worst in the SEC.
There is no doubt that more production is needed and the hope is that quarterback Jordan Jefferson will lead the way. Jefferson completed 182 passes for 2,166 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2009, with only seven interceptions, but it was a turnstyle along the offensive line and 34 sacks limited Jefferson's effectiveness.
Senior Terrance Toliver returns as the team's top receiver after posting 53 receptions for 735 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. The ground attack will be handled by a committee of backs. Russel Shepard is the leading returning runner with 277 yards in '09, but will move to receiver this fall. Expect a combination of senior Richard Murphy, junior Stevan Ridley and redshirt freshman Michael Ford to share the workload on the ground.
The LSU defense was among the top units in the country in 2009 and that made things all that much more disappointing, considering the offense could not capitalize on the defense's stingy play. The squad returns just four starters from a year ago, but still has a chance to be productive.
The strength is in the secondary, where CBs Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne are as good as it gets. That is certainly the sentiment of Miles.
"In my opinion, arguably it will be the finest corner tandem in the conference.
Just a junior, Peterson could very well leave the Tigers after this season and become a NFL first-round pick. He is a true shutdown corner and can take away half of the field. Claiborne is a sophomore who showed tremendous promise as a rookie.
Pep Levingston, a senior defensive tackle, is the lone returner up front and will be counted on for leadership. The only starting LB that returns is senior Kelvin Sheppard, who recorded 110 tackles in 2009.
The Tar Heels weren't the most productive offensive team around last year, averaging a modest 307.8 ypg. The hope is however, with 10 starters returning to the mix, those numbers can increase significantly.
It starts up front, with four starting offensive linemen returning. That stability should provide quarterback T.J. Yates with a sense of comfort. Yates completed 60 percent of his passes last season, but threw more INTs (15) than TD passes (14), something he must improve on in 2010. A seasoned receiving corps will help whomever is under center, highlighted by senior Greg Little (62 receptions, 724 yards, five TDs) and sophomore Erik Highsmith (37 receptions, for 425 yards and two TDs), who showed flashes of brilliant play as a freshman in 2009. Highsmith may have to become even more of a factor if Little misses significant time due to the current rash of suspensions. The team will also benefit from a stable of veteran rushers, led by the duo of Ryan Houston (713 yards, nine TDs) and Shaun Draughn (567 yards, one TD) -- although both will miss this contest.
Even with the loss of some key players, there is no doubt that the North Carolina defense is the driving force in Chapel Hill and may very well be the best stop unit in the country heading into 2010. The squad, which effectively stopped the run (95.6 ypg) and the pass (174.0 ypg) last season, could be even better this year. Nine of the 11 starters are back in the fold and as many as six of those guys could hear their name called early in next year's NFL Draft.
The defensive line boasts two of the nation's very best in rush end Robert Quinn and stalwart defensive tackle Marvin Austin. The 6-5, 270-pound Quinn earned First-Team All-ACC honors in 2009, racking up 52 tackles, 19 TFLs and 11 sacks, despite being just a sophomore. Austin (6-3, 305) is a monster in the middle (42 tackles, four sacks), but his indefinite suspension will have a major impact. There is plenty of talent to assuage the loss though, as LBs Quan Sturdivant (79 tackles, 11 TFLs, one sack) and Bruce Carter (65 tackles, two sacks) are as good as it gets at their respective positions. The secondary is stacked as well, with All-American candidates in Kendric Burney (52 tackles, five INTs), Charles Brown (66 tackles, three INTs) and Deunta Williams (47 tackles, six INTs) all possessing big play ability. As mentioned, Quinn, Brown and Burney will miss this game as well.
"As I've have said, there is no single game more important than the character and integrity of this university," a dejected but determined Davis said. "We are disappointed the players' choices have denied them the opportunity to compete alongside their teammates and represent the University of North Carolina. Our coaches and players have a tremendous challenge this weekend, and despite these circumstances, our team will be excited to face LSU."
In a game that figured to be dominated by top-notch defensive play, the climate now turns to one of uncertainty as the suspensions for UNC could easily prove to be its undoing. Can the Tar Heels rally? Not likely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: LSU 23, North Carolina 17