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2014 Opponent Rating: N. Carolina

Why do we rank North Carolina No. 6 among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2014?

Quarterback Marquise Williams helped North Carolina to a 6-1 finish in its final seven games last season. He finished the year with 1,698 yards passing and paced the team in rushing with 536 yards.

This is the quintessential trap game, almost identical to what Notre Dame faced in October 2012. That year, the Irish faced a crucial showdown at home against Stanford (Oct. 13), followed two weeks later by a no-way-will-they-win-there situation at Oklahoma (Oct. 27), which was 78-3 at home under head coach Bob Stoops.

Easily overshadowed was the home game against BYU in between on Oct. 20. The Irish trailed 14-7 at halftime and had to rally in the fourth quarter (aided by BYU missing an open receiver for a probable score) to eke out a 17-14 victory.

This year, it’s pretty similar. Notre Dame hosts Stanford Oct. 4 in a crucial grudge match. The Cardinal has won four of the last five years, losing only in overtime after the Irish goal-line stand in 2012. Two weeks later is the no-way-will-they-win there situation at defending national champ Florida State, featuring Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback.

Maybe overshadowed in between is the home game with North Carolina, considered one of the sleeper teams primed for a breakout campaign in 2014. The Tar Heels started 10 freshmen and sophomores last year, and will have eight starters back on offense and seven on defense.

2014 Thumbnail Preview
After a 1-5 start in 2013, the young Tar Heels regrouped and won six of their last seven, capped by a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. They are a somewhat chic pick as a breakout team in 2014, including a No. 16 ranking in ESPN’s “Way Too Early” preseason poll (Notre Dame is ranked No. 19).

Quarterback Marquise Williams took control in the second half of 2013 as a sophomore, finishing with 1,698 yards and 15 scores through the air while pacing the team in rushing with 536 yards and six touchdowns. The running game is expected to get a boost from incoming freshman and former Irish verbal Elijah Hood to complement 180-pound T.J Logan, who rushed for 533 yards and 5.7 yards per carry last year.

The passing game took a hit when tight end Eric Ebron left early for the pros, but 6-4, 205-pound Quinshad Davis (48 catches, including 10 touchdowns, as a sophomore) and Ryan Switzer will be prime targets. As a freshman last year, Switzer led the nation in punt returns, averaging 20.9 yards per return and scoring four touchdowns. His 502 yards in punt returns in 2013 alone are nearly double what Notre Dame has had the last four years combined (291).

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora selected Indiana’s Seth Littrell as the offensive coordinator to succeed Blake Anderson, who was hired as the head coach at Arkansas State. Last year with Littrell, the Hoosiers became one of the most improved offenses in the nation, finishing ninth in total offense (508.5 yards per game) and 16th in scoring (38.4 points per game).

Defensively, North Carolina is led by senior linebacker Norkeithus Otis on a unit that finished 43rd last year in scoring defense (24.5 points allowed per game).

Notable Fact
Notre Dame has a 16-2 advantage in the series which began in 1949 and was most recently played in 2008. That .889 winning percentage is the best by Notre Dame against an opponent it has played at least 15 times. However, the Tar Heels did win the most recent meeting in October 2008, 29-24 at Chapel Hill.

The game will be played Oct. 11, exactly 39 years to the day Notre Dame rallied from a 14-0 fourth quarter deficit at North Carolina to win 21-14 — the first of sophomore quarterback Joe Montana’s seven spectacular fourth-quarter rallies while with the Irish.

Summary
Sometimes it’s not just who your opponent is but when the game is played that is just as important. With this sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State for Notre Dame, the Tar Heels might be positioned for an ambush, not just because of timing but because they possess a potential top-25 team.

North Carolina director of athletics Lawrence “Bubba” Cunningham is a 1984 graduate of Notre Dame. The last time he visited Notre Dame Stadium as the director of athletics at a school, his Tulsa Golden Hurricanes posted a 28-27 win in 2010. An encore performance from him at a second school is something the Irish aim to avoid.

Tomorrow: The fifth-toughest opponent, on paper — one of our four teams we have listed in the “50-50” category in 2014.

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