If this were ESPN then it would be "Five Burning Questions brought to by Tinactin" but I digress.
The 2006 season serves as a critical juncture for UNC football and head coach John Bunting. There is a great deal of promise but also very little room for silly mistakes and bad losses. The manner in which these questions are answered could determine how the season will unfold.
And if the burning persists please consult your physician.
1. How will the offensive line perform?
This is probably THE question of the preseason for North Carolina. Based on everything we have seen in scrimmages and considering what the coaches are saying UNC has experience talent in all quarters except for the offensive line. And if my understanding of UNC’s new offense is correct that means the performance of the offensive line can make or break the upcoming season. There is a tendancy for sports fans to focus on the tangible point scoring positions and the big actions plays without realizing the degree to which the offensive line can change a game. One only needs to look at last season’s NC State-UNC game to realize that as the Tar Heel offensive lineman dominated the line of scrimmage it opened up huge spaces for the running backs and more or less ran the Wolfpack in the ground. This year that same kind of performance from the line can give UNC’s talented running backs the space they need to pick up yards. It is also important that they protect whichever two of the QBs John Bunting decides to have in the game. As for the line itself, two veterans will be holding down the left side with the center position and right side sporting less experience. Line coach Mark Weber referred to it as a attempting to assemble a puzzle. Whether or not that puzzle fits together could either free up or stall the offense in general.
2. Who will start at quarterback?
Probably the second most important question facing the Tar Heel coaching staff is who will start under center AND will we see both QBs on a regular basis? This is perhaps the best kept secret in the ACC or Bunting et. al are still debating the issue. Cam Sexton and Joe Dailey bring different styles to the field. Sexton is a passer while Dailey is more mobile. Since the West Coast offense Frank Cignetti has installed calls for downfield passing when the Heels are not running the ball I would think that gives an edge to Sexton. However the answer to question #1 may have bearing on how question #2 plays out since a pocket passer like Sexton might be vunerable if the offensive line cannot hold off opposing defensive fronts. In terms of experience Dailey played 11 games before transferring from Nebraska to Chapel Hill. Sexton missed last season with a broken foot which makes Dailey the more experienced QB among the two candidates. So far the coaching staff has been so non-commital on their pick I would not even dare to hazard a guess. In many respects having two good QBs is a good problem to have as long as they are utilized each according to his skills.
3. Which three games are the most important?
Rutgers, South Florida, and NC State. I think the opener against Rutgers is key for setting the right tone. If the Heels win and perform well it can only build confidence. Also add to the mix the second game is against Virginia Tech. Losing to Rutgers means starting the season 0-2 before taking on Furman. The Rutgers game along with the South Florida game are non-conference matchups against decent schools which will essentially destroy any bowl hopes UNC has if they lose both and seriously damages those hopes if they go 1-1. That leaves the NC State game as potentially the most important game of the season when November 18th rolls around. The rival factor already makes it huge but if you consider that if UNC beats Rutgers, Furman, South Florida, and Wake Forest but loses to Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson, UVa, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame(a viable scenario if you ask me) then UNC is at 4-6 entering the game with the Wolfpack. UNC could very well flip either the UVa or Ga Tech game into a win coupled with a almost certain win at Duke to get them to 6-6 with a loss to NC State. However, if Bunting is serious about moving the program forward then a 7-5 regular season record is the place he wants to go. And given the pressure Chuck Amato is under to move his program I have to think there will be a lot at stake when these two meet. Did also mention NC State has lost two straight to UNC? Fuel on the fire.
4. Does UNC have a chance against Notre Dame?
Probably not but then again anything can happen right? In my football preview I questioned the sanity of scheduling this game. I have since had a change of heart. Playing Notre Dame at South Bend is a national game because Notre Dame has its own network in NBC. I cannot think of the last time UNC played a nationally televised game on a broadcast network. Heck, for all I know this may be the first time. So from a standpoint of exposure the game is a good idea. If UNC keeps it close or shows some life out there then it will be a great idea. And should they pull the upset the idea will instantly become pure genius. I think the middle scenario is the best hope. Going up there and making Notre Dame work for it can only have a positive impact both for the team’s confidence and on the recruiting trail. Just please, I am begging you, do not give us a repeat of the Louisville game last season.
5. Is John Bunting on the hot seat?
Not quite but I would say it is a little cozy. Now in the interest of full disclosure let me confess that I do not like John Bunting as UNC’s head coach. I question his coaching ability, I find he is too cautious on occasions when he needs to just go for it, and I just do not think he has what it takes to get UNC back towards the upper tier of the ACC. When he was hired it felt like UNC settled and since he was "in the family" he got the job when perhaps he was not qualified to be a college head coach. Now having said that let me tell you that I would love for John Bunting to prove me wrong and do all the things I do not think he can do. Honestly, if UNC is winning then who care who is doing the coaching. It should be noted that despite my pessimism UNC has steadily improved since Bunting took over. Bunting went 7-5 in his first season but the players were not his recruits and it takes more than one preseason to establish your system as a head coach. I personally think the first season can be effectively thrown out and the second season becomes Bunting true first season as head coach. UNC went 3-9 in 2002, 2-10 in 2003, 6-6 in 2004 and 5-6 in 2005 against a tough schedule. Any way you look at that UNC has gotten better especially with a win over Miami in 2004 and a 3-2 mark against NC State in the Bunting era. Off the field, the process of improving a football program tend to be very time consuming simply because it takes longer for the players to develop. Unlike in basketball where freshman can come in and make an immediate impact. This is not the case in football where many players need at least one year to transition to the college level sometimes two if they redshirt. Also, in UNC’s case football is not basketball and since basketball is king in Chapel Hill fans have more patience or perhaps they simply could care less. As for Bunting’s situation it is antsy. There are so many factors that go into building a program such as recruiting, building a good staff, and general experience as a head coach. Since Bunting jumped straight from the NFL to college he did not have much in the way of a recruiting apparatus in place, he had to assemble his staff which has been prone to changes, and he needed to learn how to coach on college level. A great deal of patience has been afforded to Bunting based on those issues, especially in ensuring he has ample time and support to recruit good players. All the pieces seem to be in place(for the most part) so in my opinion it is winning time. This is the season where the wins need to start coming far more often than the losses because quite frankly we are past the point where all of the logistical issues involved in building a program can be considered hindrances anymore . If he wants to be around to coach Mike Paulus, UNC needs to show signs of serious growth beginning this season. And if UNC ends up with only 3-5 wins then calls for his dismissal will probably find some legitimate legs. A losing season this year would be his fourth in the last five years with the 6-6 mark in 2004 as the only respite from mediocrity. The season is not a win and get fired season but it is pivotal in determining where UNC football is headed going into the end of the decade.