ACC Now's JP Giglio pegs UNC at #3 behind Virginia Tech and Miami.
Coaching situation: Butch Davis didn't make a lot of friends in his first season by angling a raise out of a four-win season but he made a lot of money. Davis' job is as far from danger as possible but there is pressure to prove he's worth the renegotiated $2 million-plus salary.
Spring issues: Yates, a sophomore, missed the entire spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Given his relative inexperience in the sport, that's valuable practice time.
Besides Yates, safety Trimane Goddard (wrist), tackle Kyle Jolly (foot) and linebacker Chase Rice (ankle) missed the spring sessions, which doesn't exactly foster continuity, especially for a young team with so many players back.
The good news is those players will be ready for August and a year removed from the lame-duck finish with John Bunting, the Heels are the only Coastal Division program, besides Virginia Tech, not breaking in a new coach, new quarterback or both.
The Heels need better to play on defense and while they only lost three starters, two were big — DT Kentwan Balmer (first-round pick, San Francisco) and leading tackler Durell Mapp. Mapp made just about every play for a weak linebacking corps, that was often reduced to just two LBs in favor or nickel package. UNC needs Bruce Carter to offset Mapp's absence.
On offense, the passing game will be strong as Yates becomes more consistent, and with the help of junior receiver Hakeem Nicks (74 catches), but the running game still has issues. Just because Greg Little, who played the first 10 games at receiver, rushed for 158 yards against Duke in the season-finale, it doesn't mean the running game, which ranked 107th nationally, is fixed. Little has to hold up over a full season and sophomores Anthony Elzy and Ryan Houston also have to be more productive.
Fall outlook: It's possible UNC could start 1-3 and still finish 8-4. That's indicative of both how good the Heels' could be in Butch Davis' second season and just how bad the Coastal Division is.
After a I-AA opener, UNC goes to Rutgers, gets Virginia Tech at home and then goes to Miami. There's no reason they couldn't win at Miami — they beat the Canes at home last season — but until UNC proves it can win on the road, those coin-toss games have to be considered losses.
The Heels went 0-6 on the road in 2007 and have lost 13 of 14 road games overall and 20 straight outside the state of North Carolina. The Heels play Miami, Virginia, Maryland and Duke on the road in the ACC.
After Notre Dame, which also won four games in 2007, visits on Oct. 11, the Heels close with six ACC games they'll have a chance to win, even at Virginia where they never win, not since 1981 anyway.
The Heels also avoid what could be the top three teams in the Atlantic Division so the schedule sets up for Davis to make a big improvement, at least to 7-5. If not, the Rams Club should ask for a refund.
At some point, maybe this season if not next, the local media will let go of the "Butch Davis got a raise for a 4-8 season" angle. I am on record saying that it bugs me because I am not sure to what extent Davis actually did any overt "angling." Did he fail to quash the Arkansas scuttlebutt? Sure, but it was obvious there would be a demand for him and I think this was more about Dick Baddour responding to a potential situation versus Davis doing any begging. What is also lost in this point of view is the fact Davis' raise was mostly funded from retention money he would have gotten years down the road. The BOT basically said "screw it" and used it to raise his salary now rather than wait for the other shoe to drop. I have very little problem with the raise because I understand, like most UNC fans, that the general culture of the program has changed. You have to look no further than the complete sell-out of season tickets to understand that.
As for actual football, getting all the players back from injury, TJ Yates included is a must. The Heels need to solve the road record issue and like most of the games UNC lost last season, they were on the verge in road and home games alike. A few plays breaking the right way will get the Heels over the hump. Starting out 1-3 is possible since playing at Rutgers, vs VT, at Miami is a tough road for any team. That will be a test of this young team's resolve and require some careful handling by the coaching staff. That being said, if they can step up and steal one of those then it will be a huge confidence booster.
On offense it will be about achieving balance. Little showed he can run the football last season but as Giglio points out he cannot play every down and he also has to be durable. Assistance from Elzy and Houston will be a must to get through the season with an effective ground game. If the ground game is not there then Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate will find a fairly inhospitable secondary in which operate. TJ Yates will be waking in a cold sweat in the dead of night by October from seeing opposing defenses drop eight so many times he will have nightmares about it. If Little and his backfield mates can run the ball then Nicks and Tate should be downright deadly.
Defensively, Marvin Austin will be one of the focal points on a defense that returns most everyone. There is a lot of pressure on Austin to be a huge performer and since most people think he is gone after his junior season, he should be on track to produce on the defensive line this season. As Giglio mentions, the big loss is Durrell Mapp who graduated. The LB corp was weak with Mapp so putting together something there is a huge task for new defensive coordinator Everett Whithers.
This team has great potential and if they can get the pendulum to swing the right way on all those close games from 2007, 8-4 is a real possibility.