With a whopping seven home games, six of which are in the first nine games of the season, the 2011 Carolina football schedule has the potential to allow the Tar Heels to get their collective feet under them before ending with a very difficult slate in late October and November.
Here is a game-by-game look at UNC's opponents (with last year's record in parentheses):
September 3 - James Madison (6-5)
The Heels will take the field for the first time under Everett Withers against a James Madison team that shocked the world last September when they went into Blacksburg and defeated Virginia Tech. Unfortunately the Dukes could not turn that victory into season-long momentum and finished a disappointing 8th in the CAA. But JMU begins the 2011 campaign nationally-ranked in Division I-AA and, as the Hokies learned last year, should never be overlooked.
September 10 - Rutgers (4-8)
Remember when Rutgers was a program on the rise and coach Greg Schiano was in the discussion to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State? After five straight winning seasons, Rutgers limped home to a 4-8 finish in 2010, winning only one Big East game. UNC has owned the Rutgers series of late and there is no reason to expect that trend to change this season.
September 17 - Virginia (4-8)
Carolina finally ended 30 years of frustration in Charlottesville with an emphatic 44-10 win over division rival Virginia last season. The 'Hoos managed a single ACC win in Mike London's first season and look to be improved this year. The one thing about the UNC-UVA series is that it is always unpredictable, so neither team should ever count this one in the win column.
September 24 - at Georgia Tech (6-7)
The Heels make their first road trip of the season to Atlanta, also known as the Bermuda Triangle for UNC teams. Year four of the Paul Johnson era finds the Jackets without a number of their key components who were drafted by the NFL. UNC historically has problems with GT regardless of where the game is played; if Carolina can escape Atlanta with a win, they should count themselves lucky.
October 1 - at East Carolina (6-7)
UNC follows up a rough trip to Atlanta with the legislatively-mandated Kobayashi Maru game in Greenville. At night. If the ECU team and their fans aren't already jacked up to have Carolina come to town, an 8 o'clock kickoff will certainly have them rocking. The Heels soundly whipped the Pirates last year but in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, anything could happen.
October 8 - Louisville (7-6)
UNC fans who remember the early 2000s will certainly cringe at the thought of renewing the football series with the Cardinals, who administered thorough beat-downs to some of John Bunting's worst UNC teams. But after Bobby Petrino left for the NFL, the Cardinals fell on lean times and is only now is Louisville starting to regain its footing in its second year under Charlie Strong.
October 15 - Miami (7-6)
The NCAA Sanctions Bowl comes to Chapel Hill! What the Miami Hurricanes will look like under first-year coach Al Golden should be fairly evident by the middle of October. It would seem that The U has escaped major player sanctions for the current season with mostly a handful of minor suspensions. Even the one major six-game suspension will be over by the time the Canes blow into Kenan. UNC has had Miami's number of late, particularly at home. This game marks the beginning of a crucial five-game stretch that could make or break Carolina's season.
October 22 - at Clemson (6-7)
The story by the time Carolina travels to Death Valley is whether or not Tigers coach Dabo Swinney still has a job. Clemson famously pulled the plug on Tommy Bowden at a similar time in the season in 2008, and despite an appearance in the ACC title game in 2009, Swinney finds himself on the hottest coaching seat in the ACC. If Clemson has not turned the corner by mid-October, the Dabo era could be over as abruptly as it began.
October 29 - Wake Forest (3-9)
UNC will welcome the Deacons to Kenan for the first time in a number of years in a homecoming tilt that will be completely eclipsed (at least in the local media) by UNC's appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions during this week. Wake will be the only "break" (as much as a Jim Grobe team can be considered a "break") during the brutal five-game run late in the season.
November 5 - at NC State (9-4)
UNC fans will get to follow the ignominy of the COI hearing with a week of hearing how UNC is 0-4 against Tom O'Brien. As usual, expect passions to be high and the game to be tight. This will figure to be a pivotal game for both teams if either wants to challenge the division favorites. Everett Withers will go a long way towards possibly securing the permanent job at UNC - or at least being forever loved by the fans - if he could do what Butch Davis could not and beat the Pack.
November 17 - at Virginia Tech (11-3)
After 10 straight games, UNC finally gets an open date to prepare for a Thursday night game against the Hokies in Blacksburg. Carolina fans will remember the happy vibes of the big Thursday night win at Lane Stadium two years ago, but it's a safe bet the Hokies will as well. In a perfect scenario, this would be a game to decide the Coastal Division title in prime time on Thursday night. The pundits expect VT to live up to its part of the bargain - can UNC?
November 26 - Duke (3-9)
Carolina-Duke games in almost any sport are usually competitive, and now that Duke is no longer a pushover under David Cutcliffe, fans can count on another good one. Will UNC suffer a letdown either way after a big Thursday night game? What will UNC be playing for? A trip to Charlotte for the ACC title game, or a trip to Washington and the Military Bowl?
The schedule sets up very nicely for UNC to make a solid run through the season. The Heels only play 2 of their 12 games against teams that won more than 7 games last year and have seven home games against teams that went a combined 34-51 last season. The road schedule, however, is Herculean: at
the Twilight Zone Georgia Tech, ECU, Clemson, NCSU, and Virginia Tech; all were bowl teams last year.
So it would appear the season boils down to holding serve at home and stealing a game or two on the road. Given no way to reasonably predict hwo the team will react to Withers as head coach or what his coaching style and ability will be like, it is very difficult to make a prediction on a season record. However the simple math says UNC should be expected to easily win six games and the ultimate success of the year will hinge on how UNC fares in the other six.