UNC officially opens practice today for a season filled with promise but also with questions, both on and off the field.
The Heels are expected to garner strong consideration for a preseason top-25 ranking after returning almost the entire team from an 8-5 campaign in 2009 that was six points away from being 11-2. But Carolina will navigate a daunting schedule as 8 of their 11 Division I opponents played in bowl games last season and at least five opponents should open the season in the Top 25. Still, the Heels should have the experience and talent to be in every game on the schedule and compete for a division title.
Carolina will take the practice field on Friday facing three main questions:
1. How will the NCAA inquiry into Marvin Austin and Greg Little turn out?
News that the NCAA was back in Chapel Hill this week returned the ongoing saga of Austin and Little to the forefront. Both players will practice, into which we can read absolutely nothing. Until the NCAA issues a ruling, there is no reason for them not to practice, and even if one or both were to be suspended, there is no prohibition against them practicing while on suspension.
(As a side note, both Weslye Saunders and Marcel Dareus have also practiced with their respective teams this week. In his comments to the media, Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Dareus, "He's going to have to live with the consequences if there are consequences. But there will be a day when he's allowed to play football again, and it may be very soon. He needs to prepare himself to take advantage of that." [emphasis mine] Wonder if those in the blogosphere will parse those words as intently as the comments of Charlie Williams to Tim Scott were scrutinized, as may imply that Saban either knows something and is holding back or is lying, as some blogs accused Butch Davis of doing. But I digress...)
It is debatable who would be a bigger loss, Austin or Little, if one or both are suspended or declared ineligible. Austin is very talented but the defense is full of talented players. And yet, the defensive line thins out quickly after the top 3 or 4 guys. Little, on the other hand, is the team's leading receiver, but there are receivers behind him with lots of potential, and the drop-off after Little does not seem to be as large as the drop-off after Austin.
In any case, the general feeling seems to be that the NCAA probe will be wrapped up before the LSU game and the team can move forward.
2. Who will assume control of the QB position?
Most teams would love to have a returning senior three-year starting quarterback who had led his team to back-to-back 8-win seasons, but the mojo around T.J. Yates remains cloudy. Yates' inconsistent and often erratic play has opened the door for highly-touted freshman Bryn Renner to compete for the starting job.
The most popular guy on a football team is the backup quarterback, and Renner did nothing to dispel that notion with his performance in the spring game. Butch Davis has shown loyalty to Yates, and unless something drastic happens between now and Labor Day weekend, we can expect Yates to start against LSU.
But it does lead to the question of how long Yates' leash will be. I think Davis will be much more likely to give Yates the hook if he starts throwing at receivers' shoestrings or opponents' defensive backs like he did last year. I can also envision a scenario where Renner gets one or two series with the first unit each half, especially in games after the open date following the LSU game.
3. Just how good is UNC's defense, really?
It has been a given that UNC's defense will be dominant, given the level of talent returning. But despite some gaudy numbers and individual talent, the defense faltered in three crucial losses last year: Florida State, NC State, and Pitt in the bowl game. Much has been made of how much the defense might have to carry the offense this year, but at least in the FSU and State games last season, the offense scored enough points to win.
Hopefully the offense will be improved enough that the defense will only have to be pretty good, not exceptional, for Carolina to improve on last year's record. If the defense is exceptional and the offense improves to just average, the Heels could be in for a very, very good year.