Saturday, November 9th vs Virginia
The way UNC's schedule plays out, there is an even split between games North Carolina should win and games they could or will lose which means by the time the Cavaliers roll into Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels could be sitting on 4-4 or maybe even 5-3. If that is the case UNC will need to win the last four games for an 8 or 9 win season with the latter being a place UNC has not been since 1997.
As for Virginia, right now there are huge questions since the Cavaliers are breaking in a new quarterback but have experience at various spots. It is also a team coming off a 4-8 campaign a year after going 8-5. Mike London would love to bounce back because another losing season might make things dicey for him. Oh and Tom O'Brien is on the Virginia staff now and if this were still a Butch Davis era team that might be an issue given the impotence against TOB UNC experienced prior to Larry Fedora's arrival.
When this game rolls around, eight contests into the season, we will have a better feel for where Virginia is at but even then, UNC cannot afford to drop any home games nor should they with Miami being the notable exception.
Saturday, November 16th at Pittsburgh
This will be the Tar Heels' first foray into a new ACC member's stadium and it comes against a Pitt team that is very much an enigma. The Panthers have had a rough couple of seasons with an abrupt coaching change and the loss of 23 players from transfer, suspension, dismissal or outright leaving the team. That kind of turmoil would be difficult for any program to overcome and one might expect the Panthers to perform poorly as a result. That's not really the case, up to a point. Pitt went 6-7 a year ago. Four of those losses were by one top Syaracue, 10 to Louisville, by three in OT to Notre Dame and by a touchdown against UConn. Of course that came after opening the season 0-2 which included a loss to Youngstown St. Pitt righted the ship to some degree and even scored a two touchdown win over Virginia Tech.
All of this is to say no one really knows what kind of game UNC will get on the road at Pittsburgh. Last season this was a Pitt team that could rise to the occasion but also lose inexplicably to FCS teams. Add to that some attrition at the QB and RB positions there will obviously be some needed growing by the personnel that's left.
Regardless of what is going on, this will be a stern test on the road for the Tar Heels and depending on how the division shakes out a critical win to be had.
Saturday, November 23rd vs Old Dominion
We are probably well past the point where we can casually dismiss a game versus an FCS school unless it has been proven that said FCS school is hot garbage on the football field. Old Dominion doesn't really fit the profile with an 11-2 mark a year ago. With that in mind, the Monarchs probably deserve a little respect and shouldn't be taken lightly. At the same time, if UNC is struggling too much with FCS teams at home in the 11th game of the season, whatever transpired before that point was likely ugly business.
Saturday, November 30th vs Duke
The game to see who possesses the Victory Bell returns to the final weekend of the season after being contested in early October last season. That game was a watershed moment in the David Cutcliffe era in Durham. The Blue Devils converted a fourth and goal to take the lead late and become bowl eligible for the first time since the Clinton Administration. As it turns out that win was Duke's last of the season which was a bit annoying since one stinking stop on fourth down could have denied the Blue Devils a bowl bid.
It is probably too much to ask for a second bite at that apple and have a 5-6 Duke team roll into Kenan Stadium on November 30th. That probably won't happen since Duke has a favorable schedule with four non-conference games they should win and cracks at Virginia, NC State and Wake Forest. Of course, this is not the same Duke team from a year ago. QB Sean Renfree is gone as is WR Connor Vernon however the Devils still have Jamison Crowder who had over 1000 yards receiving last season. Anthony Boone is ready for his close-up at QB having gained a little experience a year ago. Duke also returns most of its running back corps. Duke still has enough with the schedule are in position for another bowl eligible season. That could mean a regular season finale with one teams seeking a bowl bid and the other trying to get over the eight win hump for the first time in a very long time.
Naked and howling at the moon: 12-0. It's fun to think about.
Pleasant Surprise: 10-2, 7-1 in the ACC. UNC sweeps the final four games to reach ten wins for the first time since Mack Brown was in Chapel Hill. In this scenario UNC likely wins the division.
Something Butch Davis Never Did at UNC: 9-3, 6-2 in the ACC. If UNC can get to 5-3 through eight games(tough but doable) then a sweep of the home stretch would put the Heels over the eight win hump and possibly in the ACC title game.
Seems Likely: 8-4, 5-3 in the ACC. Again, much of this depends on what happens with the GT/VT/Miami games. Losing all three of those plus falling to South Carolina sets up the 4-4 record which would necessitate running the table which is well within reason given three of the games come at home.
Oops!: 7-5, 4-4 in the ACC. The Pitt game is a worry. If UNC is 4-4 then losing at Pitt but holding serve at home could land the Heels at 7-5 which isn't horrid but certainly not feeling like it built off last season.
Well, guess Fedora won't be high on anyone's list now: 6-6 or worse. There are various nightmare scenarios we could run through here one of which is UNC finding a way to lose to ECU, NC State and Duke in the same season. I don't think that will happen, in fact I think an in-state sweep is on tap.
The expectation is UNC should either match the 8-4 from last season or surpass it. That could simply happen with a bowl win but it would be nice to see a nine win regular season with a shot at ten wins in the bowl. UNC did lose some important pieces from last season but still retains enough of the offense with Bryn Renner poised to have a huge season.
All that being said, my guess is UNC still ends up 8-4 and 5-3 in the ACC but unfortunately, the 5-3 won't get them into the ACC Championship.