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August 19, 2010North Carolina's second regular season game, its opener in Atlantic Coast Conference play and its first home game of the 2010 is September 18 against defending league champion Georgia Tech, which produced an 11-3 record and earned a trip last winter to the Orange Bowl.
"We won a few games. We did pretty good (last year)," said Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson, who has produced a 20-7 overall record and a 13-4 mark over his first two seasons in Atlanta. "It wasn't easy. It's just a deal where our guys found ways to make plays."
The Yellow Jackets have to replace several standouts this fall, including star running back Jonathan Dwyer, ACC defensive player of the year Derrick Morgan, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and safety Morgan Burnett.
The good news for Johnson is that his team returns 15 starters, including starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt and several solid players on both sides of the football.
"That might happen (people doubting us). That might be a good thing, (but I feel good about) the 15 (returning starters) we've got coming back," he said.
"That's why they play the games, but I think we can be as good or better than a year ago. We'll see," Johnson added. "I think it's just a matter of the team executing well and making plays and not wanting to lose, you know."
"I've seen a lot of people write us off because of those four guys being gone, and so we've been training all summer like we're the underdogs---like people are counting us out again," said running back Roddy Jones, who rushed for 345 yards and three touchdowns last year and figures to play prominently in the Georgia Tech running game this fall.
"We're going to come in with a chip on our shoulder to prove that we have what it takes to repeat," Jones added.
Now that they've had a taste of success, the Yellow Jacket players admit that now being at the top of the ACC standings is not a goal but an expectation.
"It (the bar) definitely has (been raised)," said Jones. "It's kind of an understood goal this year."
"Last year and the year before it had been one of those things that we had to say, but it's kind of understood that the goal this year is to win the ACC championship and even go farther---maybe run the table and see if we can get in the talks for the national championship," White added.
"Definitely (the bar has been raised)," said junior defensive end Jason Peters.
"The coaches are preaching to us, 'Don't be satisfied with what you did last year. You were so close. You were one or two games away from playing for the national championship. Take advantage of this.'"
"With our success last year, it can carry us over as far as rankings," Peters added. "It would be a shame for us not to perform like we need to."
Jones and Peters, as well as Coach Johnson, feel strongly that the team will be able to overcome its personnel losses and once again be among the stronger teams in the conference after leading the ACC last fall in rushing offense (295.4 ypg) and total offense (422.1 ypg) while also leading the league with an average of 33.8 points per game.
"It's a pretty experienced team at a lot of positions---we've got a lot of guys coming back on defense and we've got a lot of guys coming back on offense," said Jones.
"We've learned how to win. We've learned how to win games. We've learned how to hold onto leads. We've learned how to finish teams. We've been in about every position that you can be in as a team, so we have those experiences to pull off of, and I think it will do nothing but benefit us," he added.
"I'm very confident in our players and the guys that we have, even though we lost some great guys---guys who could do unbelievable things," said Peters, who reportedly had an outstanding spring and figures to play heavily this fall after starting four games at defensive end a year go in Tech's 3-4 scheme.
"I think we're going to do what we have to do to meet the standard we met last year, and to take it farther," he added.
The Yellow Jacket defense is undergoing a bit of an overhaul this summer with the addition of new defensive coordinator Al Groh, the former Virginia head coach who has shifted his way through the ACC Coastal Division.
"A guy with his (Groh's) experience, he knows what you're looking for because he's been in my chair. When I go down there (to practice) he knows what I'm looking for," said Johnson. "I think he's got a great reputation as a defensive coach. He brings a system that's proven."
"The guy just loves football. He'd stay there 24 hours a day if you let him," Johnson added about Groh. "His idea of a vacation was going up and spending two or three days with (New England Patriots head) coach (Bill) Belichick watching film. He just loves it."
Groh proven his mettle against North Carolina in recent years, as his defenses at Virginia largely shut UNC down over the last four games between the two rivals dating back to 2006---all victories for the Cavaliers.
The Yellow Jackets are looking to improve this fall a defense that ranked seventh in the ACC last year, giving up 360.3 yards per game. What was even more troubling was the fact that Georgia Tech often had trouble forcing punts from opposing teams and allowed over half its opponents---eight in total---to score 27 or more points against them.
"We gave up a lot of yards per rush. We struggle to get people off the field. We had three games last year where teams only punted once, and fortunately we won three out of those five games, but you're not going to live like that long," Johnson said. "We've got to get the other teams off the field and hopefully create some turnovers."
With Tech's ball-control, triple-option offensive style, it really only takes a few opposing punts for them to be in position to control time of possession and make things really difficult for those they face.
"We feel like if we can get the other team to punt four or five teams we've got a good chance to win the game," he added.
For Johnson, it all comes back to effort on both sides of the ball.
"I think we talk a lot to our guys about effort and playing hard. It doesn't take any ability to do that---everybody can play hard," he said.
"When you work hard and play hard, most of the time when you do that good things will happen, and when they see that and they win some close games it kind of comes home and you hit that confidence level that we can finish. We can make the plays at the end."
"We try to pride ourselves on not letting anybody play harder than us. I know everybody says that but we try to do that," Johnson added.
Coming off a highly-successful series of tenures at Georgia Southern and Navy---where he proved his old-school triple-option offense still has legs in modern college football---Johnson is proving now at Georgia Tech that he can flat-out coach this game.
Johnson, who received passing interest from schools like UNC and N.C. State back in 2006 when those particular jobs were open, admits that he feels a distinct sense of responsibility to uphold the tradition of Georgia Tech football---and so far he's done a remarkable job.
"I think that my perception is that Georgia Tech has won four national championships and won more home football games in their stadium than any other stadium in the country," he said.
"They're used to competing at a high level, and that's what we wanted to do. When I went to Georgia Tech I felt like we could do that."
"Hopefully we're laying the foundation to be able to compete year in and year out at a high level," he added. "This will be a big challenge this year, but we'll see how it goes."
For North Carolina, the showdown with Georgia Tech in Kenan Stadium is arguably the biggest game of the season.
While the opener with LSU will draw plenty of headlines for the Tar Heels win or lose, it's the Georgia Tech game that will help shape the race in the ACC Coastal Standings.
A win puts the Tar Heels in great shape to compete for the division title and a coveted berth in the ACC Championship Game---held this year in nearby Charlotte---while a loss would certainly be detrimental to Carolina's chances, as it proved to be last fall when they were outplayed in Atlanta.
In simplest terms, it's a game that will go a very long way in establishing the type of season that the Tar Heels will have.