(No, the title does not refer to my posting schedule. Couch-surfing ends this Sunday, and the steady diet of half-assed blogging should return shortly after that.)
I don't really know how the list of toughest schedules are determined every year. UNC was typically at the top of them in the Bunting years, and while I seem to have read the schedule is easier this season, I sure don't see any evidence of it. James Madison, South Florida, South Carolina and ECU stack up pretty favorably to last season's Furman, South Florida, Rutgers and Notre Dame, after all.
I wil make this claim, however. UNC's next four weeks are the toughest schedule by far in the conference, and quite possibly in the country. To wit:
South Florida The Bulls have only played two games, and one of them was against the noted football power that is the Elon College No-Longer Fighting Christians. But the second game was an overtime stunner over 17th-ranked Auburn. The team that stomped the Heels in Chapel Hill last year have done nothing but improve in the off-season, with Matt Grothe growing into the quarterback role and an impressive defense. This team handily dispatched ECU in last year's bowl game, and they're being viewed as a fourth first-tier team in the Big East this season. (At least here in Pittsburgh, where the Panthers fans don't seem to have much hope in the final four games of the season.)
Virginia Tech Yes, the team was destroyed by LSU, and hampered by the media reminder that a horrible tragedy cannot truly be me to grips with unless they move a synthetic pig bladder across a chalk line more than other schools, but the Hokies are stil one of the top teams in the conference, and have another cupcake before UNC to fix their quaterback and offensive line problems. Tech's already beaten the best team the Heels have played to date, and have pretty much owned Carolina since they joined the league.
Miami Ah, the weakest team of the bunch. A first-year coach, a mediocre season last year... and they just destroyed Texas A&M. Against my previous doubts and the Oklahoma trouncing, this appears to be a very good defense, one that should absolutely swallow UNC's running game and give the passing game fits.
South Carolina I've enjoyed Spurrier's lack of Florida-success in the past two years in Columbia. I don't think I'll get the chance this year. This week's LSU game will go a long way in truly seeing how this team measures up, but the Cocks have already taken down Top 25 Georgia this season. Luckily, Spurrier is famed for is restraint and sportsmanship when playing Carolina.
Only Miami of these four is unranked, and that may change after this week's A&M victory. All the teams will be rested, with USF coming off a bye week, USC getting an extra two days after a Thursday game, Tech playing William & Mary the week before, and Miami facing Duke. By the time the Heels get the relief of a bye week, the season wil look a lot less promising.
Can Carolina win any of these games? THey've beaten good Miami teams before, and there's more question marks with Virginia Tech than people expected by this point in the season. The Heels will still be smarting from last year's South Florida game, and USC has been known to suffer the occasional mental lapse. But it's a very rough four weeks for a young team still learning the ropes in a lot of areas, and I don't feel particularly guilty for the level of pessimism I'm feeling. If nothing else, these next few games will show if the team has the mettle to stay in the games or reproduce the large margins of defeat we're so used to seeing.
On the bright side, N.C. State's schedule is nothing to look forward to - Clemson, Louisville, and FSU - and at least we didn't have to spend x number of years on that brick campus.