For the first time in what seems like an eternity, the talk around the UNC football program can turn to the actual playing of football. For the second straight season, Carolina will have seven home games and a chance to make some noise in the ACC Coastal Division race, although the Heels are ineligible for postseason play.
Of the seven home games, Carolina faces a number of its toughest opponents in the friendly confines of Kenan Stadium, namely Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and NC State. UNC also avoids Atlantic Division heavyweights Clemson and Florida State this season.
There are also a number of quirks in the schedule this year, such as the fact that Carolina plays five in-state opponents for the first time since the 1940s, and the fact that the Heels will play five games in the month of September. UNC is also playing an ACC opponent other than Duke or NCSU in the final regular season game for only the 3rd time in the last 50 years.
Here is a game-by-game look at UNC’s opponents (with last year’s record in parentheses):
September 1 – Elon (5-6)
In a game of firsts, Larry Fedora will make his debut as Carolina's coach and fans will get their first look at the spread offense and 4-2-5 defense. Elon makes the 45-minute drive down I-40 to face the Tar Heels for the first time in school history. Elon head coach Jason Swepson is a former NC State assistant, and Tom O'Brien's son Danny is an assistant coach (plus a handful of other assistants with Wolfpack connections) so there is no doubt the Phoenix staff will be pumped about playing the Heels.
September 8 – at Wake Forest (6-7)
Carolina makes the trip to Winston-Salem for the first time since 2007. UNC may have played its most complete game of the season against Wake at home last year, and it is easy to forget that Wake was a field goal away from having the chance to win the ACC's Atlantic Division last season. A Jim Grobe-coached team is always a challenge to face at any time of the season.
September 15 – at Louisville (7-6)
If Wake was Carolina's signature win of 2011, the Louisville win may have been the ugliest of the season, not that anyone is complaining about winning. Speaking of ugly, UNC returns to the site of one of the worst losses of the John Bunting era (a 69-14 thrashing in 2005) against a team that won the Big East last season. The Cardinals should be expected to contend again in their league so this will be another road test for a team that may still be adjusting to the nuances of the new systems.
September 22 – East Carolina (5-7)
Carolina will return to Kenan to play another potential conference title contender in the legislatively-mandated Kobayashi Maru game. Fedora and his staff will certainly have experience with ECU from their time in Conference USA and given the fact that both teams will likely sling the ball all over the field, this has the makings of an entertaining game.
September 29 – Idaho (2-10)
Idaho will bring one of the best nicknames - Vandals - and one of the poorer football teams in FBS to Chapel Hill in a game that was scheduled to replace Tennessee after the Vols bought out their contract against Carolina. This will hopefully be the cream-filled center of a cupcake before the heart of divisional play in October.
October 6 – Virginia Tech (11-3)
The series between UNC and perennial Coastal Division contender Virginia Tech has been competitive but Carolina has only managed a single win against the Hokies in 8 tries. This game will again have divisional implications and will be highlighted as a "white out" game in which the Heels are expected to debut their long-awaited white helmets. VT, which rocks 4 or 5 different uniform combinations per season, will likely be unimpressed.
October 13 – at Miami (6-6)
Probation Bowl 2012 makes its appearance in South Florida as bowl-ineligible UNC faces likely bowl-ineligible Miami, assuming the NCAA has finished with Miami's extra benefits case by then. Al Golden's teams are usually pretty solid but UNC let one get away from them against the 'Canes last year, so expect Carolina to come out focused for this one.
October 20 – at Duke (3-9)
No, do not adjust your calendar. UNC is playing Duke in October for the first time since 1938. Like the Chicago Cubs, "wait 'til next year" is a recurring theme in Durham and although the Blue Devils have achieved competitive respectability under David Cutcliffe, they have not turned the proverbial corner. Duke has seemed to be their most dangerous around this part of the season, however, so look for a stiff challenge for the Heels to notch their 9th straight win in the series.
October 27 – NC State (8-5)
No need to wonder if Larry Fedora has embraced the rivalry with NC State, as he has placed a premium on the annual tilt with the Wolfpack. As opposed to the Sendekian approach Butch Davis took to the blood rivals and the "flagship" comments tossed out by Everett Withers, Fedora has seemed to focus on ending State's 5-year run on the field. Regardless of how both teams are faring by late October (and both have the chance to be pretty good) this should be a fabulous football game.
November 10 – Georgia Tech (8-5)
The schedule makers are once again kind to Carolina as UNC gets the bye week to come down off the NC State game and have extra time to prepare for Paul Johnson and the Georgia Tech offense. Teams historically have had success with an extra week to prepare for the triple option, so the Heels will certainly have an opportunity to prove the adage true.
November 15 – at Virginia (8-5)
After exorcising the 30-year drought at Charlottesville two years ago, UNC returns to UVa on a short week for a Thursday night game, and again one that could have huge divisional implications. Even though Carolina is ineligible for the ACC Championship Game, the Heels certainly have the chance to play spoiler for teams like the 'Hoos with designs on going to Charlotte.
November 24 – Maryland (2-10)
Many ABCers complained that the ACC did not take significant action in the wake of the football unpleasantness at UNC. The argument could be made that hosting Maryland in the final game of a season in which the Heels are ineligible for the postseason is quite a punishment. A Thanksgiving weekend game against a potentially epically bad Terps team is one sure way to not generate a lot of excitement about the end of a season. Like the Independence Bowl last year, in many ways even having to play this game is a sentence of its own.
Making predictions about how the season will play out is difficult on a number of levels, from how UNC will adjust to a new staff and new schemes on both sides of the ball to how the team will perform with no possibility of a bowl game or a spot in the ACC title game. Carolina has three of its toughest games at home - VT, NCSU, and Georgia Tech, and a non-conference slate that is relatively light. If Carolina can get off to a strong start, say 4-1 or even 5-0, headed into the Virginia Tech game, then the Heels have a good chance at 9 wins. On the other hand, if UNC falters early and struggles with confidence and limps into October at 3-2 or 2-3, then the stumble could continue to a 5 or 6-win year.