So begins the third year of the Larry Fedora era.
The third season of any coaching tenure marks a significant shift from the remains of the old regime to a full investment in the new one. From a personnel standpoint, this is the season where a nearly full transition has been made from depending on players recruited by your predecessor to leaning on "your guys." The recruits from the first and second classes are now two and three years into the program. For the most part, anyone donning Carolina blue this season were recruited for this system and chose to play for this coaching staff.
This is the point where Larry Fedora is proverbially standing on his own two feet. The players are "his players." He's responsible for the talent level and the players, assuming everything is proceeding according to plan, have bought into the system. As it pertains to UNC it also marks the point where Fedora has parted company with some fairly talented players recruited in the Butch Davis era. For all the criticisms of Davis, the man knew talent. Fedora's first two seasons has seen him benefit to some extent from that talent, especially on the offensive and defensive lines and the likes of Gio Bernard and Eric Ebron. Most of those players have left Chapel Hill and Fedora will now ride with the players he recruited.
This season isn't a crossroads of any sorts but it does mark an opportunity to really build momentum going forward. The NCAA sanctions which limited UNC to just 80 scholarships per season will expire after this season allowing the football program a chance to settle into stability and a routine. UNC will have a new offensive coordinator this season and some staff shuffling resulting from Blake Anderson's move to Arkansas State. However the addition of Seth Littrell is seen as a good hire with the added benefit of providing some new wrinkles to the offense. In short the pieces are in place, the schedule tough but not daunting and the Coastal Division of the ACC is wide open.
After opening up last season with a road game at South Carolina and going 1-5 in the first half of the slate, UNC opens the 2014 schedule with a more manageable set of opponents and layout. While 2013 was front-loaded, the 2014 season is a better mix of tough/winnable games not to mention a good portion of them have the Tar Heels with a good chance of winning. After opening the season with Liberty and San Diego State at home the Heels get an off week before traveling to East Carolina and Clemson. The first two games are must and should wins, games UNC cannot afford to think about losing. Those games provide the Tar Heels with an opportunity to iron out any kinks, especially if there is lingering doubts about the quarterback position.
The game against ECU is incredibly important. In theory UNC could head to Greenville 2-0 and facing a tough Pirates team looking for a second consecutive win over the Tar Heels. With UNC going to Clemson, facing Virginia Tech at home then traveling to Notre Dame, a win versus ECU is important for the margin of error in the win column. It is not outside the realm of possibility that UNC could end up going 1-2 or 0-3 in the three games following the trip to Greenville. Heading into that stretch at 3-0 is crucial even though it has little bearing on the race in the ACC.
Speaking of the ACC race, chances are UNC isn't going to win at Clemson though the Tigers are working with a new quarterback this season. Assuming the Heels lose at Death Valley, salvaging a split in the first two games of the conference slate by beating Virginia Tech at home will be necessary to gain some leverage in the division race. From there the Heels face Notre Dame to close out the first half of the season. In a world where everything goes right 5-1 is possible but in reality 4-2 with losses to Clemson and Notre Dame would be a perfectly fine way to roll into mid-October.
The second half of the schedule is when UNC's division title hopes and bid for the program's first nine win season since the Mack Brown era will be made or broke. Over the final six games UNC will face five Coastal Division foes, with three of those games coming on the road. The other two will be home games against Georgia Tech and a triple-option offense UNC can never seem to stop and Pittsburgh. Assuming UNC can finally master Paul Johnson's offense, take care of business at Virginia and Pitt, the season really comes down to three games: Miami, Duke and NC State. The key for UNC will be holding serve at home against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh while winning at Charlottesville. Wins in those games and a presumed loss versus Clemson puts UNC in a position to go 5-3, 6-2 or 7-1 in the ACC depending on how the games against Miami, Duke and NC State shake out. At 6-2 or 7-1, UNC has an excellent shot at winning the division whereas 5-3 will likely require some tiebreaker magic.
Among the issues UNC faced last season was having a handful of negative plays put the Heels on the wrong side of the ledger. In the loss to Miami it was a delay of game on 3rd and 1 late in the fourth quarter that led to the Hurricanes getting the ball back and winning the game. In the home loss to Duke, a dropped interception by Tre Boston and 15-yard penalty from Russell Bodine prevented UNC from possibly locking the game up. Last season was characterized by penalties, mistakes and any number of touchdowns taken off the scoreboard by those miscues. Those miscues may have been the difference between being 7-6 and 9-4.
For UNC to get over the eight win hump and make a bid for the ACC title game the Tar Heels either need to play so well as to negate mistakes or make a drastic cut in the mistakes of last season. Things like bad bounces, balls off the fingertips and injuries are outside of UNC's control. The penalties, especially crippling holds by the offensive line that wipes out big gains and points are the kind of mistakes that need to be avoided. In all likelihood, UNC will face several tight games where a play or two may decide the outcome. Playing disciplined football, especially given the margin of error, is probably more important than who starts at quarterback.
The Larry Fedora era at UNC is poised to either make a leap forward and snag a long awaited 9-plus win season or continue to toil in eight wins or less doldrums of the past 15 or so years. With the personnel UNC has in place, the schedule and a wide-open Coastal Division, there may not be a better time than now for the Tar Heels to finally have that breakthrough season.
Brian: 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC
Paul: 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC
Doc: 8-4 overall, 5-3 in the ACC
Correction: The initial post indicated the scholarship reductions have ended. 2014 is the last season of those reductions and UNC will return to full strength in 2015.