Pickeral: Conference Pride
by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina coach Larry Fedora says he hasn't spoken to his Tar Heels about what it means to face an SEC team - in this case, sixth-ranked South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. -- in Thursday's season opener.
Then again, he doesn't really have to.
"Until you knock 'em off, they're always going to be the best conference,'' senior UNC quarterback Bryn Renner said. "I think we have great players in the ACC, and I think having the opportunity to prove that on a national scale is going to be great for our conference."
And, potentially, the team.
No doubt toppling a top-10 foe for the first time since 2004 would be a coup for a Tar Heel squad trying to build off Fedora's fast-paced, 8-4 first UNC season. Upsetting a top-10 SEC team? Even moreso.
Not only has the Southeastern Conference won seven straight crystal football BCS trophies, it boasted a record 63 players taken in the most recent NFL draft; has five squads back in the Associated Press top 10; and features two of the top names - reigning Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel and another Heisman favorite in Jadeveon Clowney -- in the sport.
You hardly can go anywhere without seeing the SEC touted on TV, analyzed on sports blogs, pictured in pre-season magazines.
Although, with the right outcomes this weekend, that could play to UNC, and the ACC's, favor.
"You have us playing South Carolina, Virginia Tech's playing [top-ranked] 'Bama and Clemson [playing No. 5] Georgia,'' UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said. "If we can go 3-0 this weekend, it will be great for the conference; maybe it will knock the SEC down, and everybody will start paying attention to every other conference across the board."
Considering Clemson, at No. 8, is the only ranked ACC squad in that aforementioned trio, 3-0 seems like a long shot. Especially since the ACC has gone a nose-wrinkling 50-77 against the SEC since 1996 and hasn't had a winning record against it since 2003 (5-4), according to ESPN.com.
Still, Martin readily admits that after Thursday night's conclusion, he'll be rooting for the Hokies and Tigers come Saturday - and for pragmatic reasons as well as simple conference pride.
"When they're not playing an ACC team, you always want to build the brand of the conference,'' he explained. "Later on in the year, I'd rather play a No. 15 Virginia Tech team than a Virginia Tech team that's lost a couple non-conference games, because that's not only going to help the conference - but it's ultimately going to help us when we play [them] and get the victory, because it would help us in the rankings."
Fedora, though, isn't looking that far ahead - and doesn't want his players to, either. Not with such a tough road game right in front of them.
"We're not playing the SEC, we're playing South Carolina,'' he insisted. "It's one team in that league. A very good football team in that league. A team that is ranked ... No. 6 in the country. We haven't talked about league vs. league."
Just thought about it.
Maybe more than a little.
"Until somebody beats them, the SEC is going to be the best,'' Renner repeated. "We want to beat the best."