Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

On the most interesting matchups of the season. Today: North Carolina vs. LSU in Atlanta on Sept. 4. Part of the Doc's ACC Week.

The ACC has always been maligned by football fans (that is, SEC fans) as a second-rate, a basketball conference, and the last decade been quite the image booster it was supposed to be. Since the demise of Florida State as a national contender after the 2000 season, the ACC hasn't fielded a serious national championship contender and is 1-9 in BCS games. (It's never put an at-large team into a big-koney game, even after the expansion of both the conference and the number of available BCS slots.)

And then, of course, it's sent its overwhelming preseason favorite each of the last two years to open the season against Alabama in the Georgia Dome, like unwitting lambs to the slaughter:

OK, it would be an exaggeration to suggest an entire conference's reputation hinges on North Carolina's opening-night effort in the Kickoff Classic. And North Carolina is hardly a unanimous conference favorite. But after Alabama laid the wood to relatively loaded outfits of both Clemson and Virginia Tech, yeah, it would certainly be nice to leave the Georgia Dome without hearing the abominable "S-E-C!" chant echoing through the rafters like some primitive war cry. It would be a nice launch for what the Tar Heels hope is a banner season, too.

UNC may not be the official ACC frontrunner, but for once, it is as stiff a test as the conference can offer going into the season. Butch Davis, architect of the ludicrously talented Miami juggernaut that won 24 straight games and a national title immediately following his departure for the NFL, has slowly assembled a monster defense, one the pro scouts seem to think could give his old 'Cane outfits a run for their money. When a horde of potential draft picks all decided to return to Carolina in January, this became a kind of make-or-break year for Davis' rebuilding effort: The window to break through on an ACC championship/BCS level with this senior-laden D is exceedingly small, and may not come again for years, if ever.

So the offense is more or less dead weight. And UNC is prone to considering itself a second-class gridiron citizen, confirmation of which – a la 'Bama's beatdown of overhyped, perpetually underachieving Clemson two years ago – could send the Heels spiraling toward oblivion. Not that Davis is going to join Tommy Bowden in the unemployment line at midseason if it goes really badly out of the gate. But off two straight 8-5 campaigns, Davis does have his team on the verge of the proverbial "next step," and nationally-televised primetime games against name-brand powerhouses less than three years removed from a national championship are the kind it has to win to take that step.

As name-brand powerhouses go, LSU may be somewhat more desperate. Since taking the BCS title in 2007, the Tigers have exactly one win in eight tries against opponents that finished in the top 25. Conveniently for them here, that was a 38-3 rout over rising ACC force Georgia Tech, in the Georgia Dome, in another game sponsored by delicious chicken sandwiches, the 2008 Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

That's a reassuring precedent, but the Tigers are also coming off a bowl loss to Penn State in a season in which they finished dead last in the SEC in total offense. They're not expected to be a significant factor at the top of the SEC West for the first time in a decade. And they're running into an opponent more than capable of dashing hopes of a comeback campaign just a few hours after it begins.

In one corner, then, is a team with a big future waiting to be set in motion; in the other, a wounded outfit with an endangered status to defend. My instincts tend to tilt toward the team with more to lose – in this case, LSU, which badly needs some semblance of a big win. But UNC is well-equipped to hang in an SEC-style slugfest. If T.J. Yates' crew beats Jordan Jefferson's to 20 points, it could be the launch of one of the bigger seasons in Tar Heel history. (You know, for what it's worth.)

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Previously: Boise State vs. Virginia Tech.

Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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