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UNC #15 In Final AP Poll; Big Things Ahead in 2016?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Overall not a bad place to end up, even after getting trucked by Baylor's running game. Here is what the final poll looked like.

Rank Team Previous
1 Alabama 2
2 Clemson 1
3 Stanford 5
4 Ohio State 7
5 Oklahoma 4
6 Michigan State 3
7 TCU 11
8 Houston 14
9 Iowa 6
10 Mississippi 16
11 Notre Dame 8
12 Michigan 17
13 Baylor 18
14 FSU 9
15 UNC 10
16 LSU 22
17 Utah 20
18 Navy 21
19 Oregon 15
20 Oklahoma State 13
21 Wisconsin 23
22 Tennessee NR
23 Northwestern 12
24 Western Kentucky 25
25 Florida 19

You have to admire the consistency of UNC staying just behind Florida State.

It stands to reason UNC will begin 2016 in roughly the same spot in the poll. Unlike previous seasons where UNC wakes up in August sitting in the preseason Top 25, there will be merit to the Tar Heels being ranked.

ESPN is already looking ahead and has the Tar Heels #17 in one of the way too early polls for 2016.

17. North Carolina Tar Heels

2015 record: 11-3, 8-0 ACC
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 special teams

Key losses: QB Marquise Williams, WR Quinshad Davis, G Landon Turner, LB Shakeel Rashad, Jeff Schoettmer, S Sam Smiley, DT Justin Thomason

Outlook: The Tar Heels finally broke through in coach Larry Fedora's fourth season, improving from 6-7 in 2014 to 11-3 and winning the ACC's Coastal Division this past season. The Tar Heels dropped their last two games, but momentum certainly seems headed in the right direction. UNC will have to replace quarterback Marquise Williams, who accounted for 4,020 yards of offense with 37 touchdowns in 2015. Backup Mitch Trubisky completed a whopping 85.1 percent of his passes with six scores. The Tar Heels open the season against Georgia in Atlanta and also play two FCS opponents (James Madison and The Citadel) for the second straight season.

UNC's key losses can mostly be overcome. Bug Howard will need to step into the "reliable receiver who can block" role to replace Quinshad Davis with Mack Hollins also showing he can do more than catch deep throws. Of the two linebackers, Shakeel Rashad is the bigger loss. Jeff Schoettmer had his bright spots but it was clear this season he struggled at times, especially in pass coverage. Obviously losing an All-American guard in Landon Turner won't be easy to replace but the offensive line will be largely intact.

The quarterback position might actually get an upgrade which is weird to say given the numbers Marquise Williams put up in his career. Mitch Trubisky showed he is very capable of taking the reins of the offense and the Tar Heels won't miss a beat. UNC has Elijah Hood returning along with T.J. Logan. The receiving corp will still be very good with Howard, Hollins, Ryan Switzer and tight end Brandon Fritts. Trubisky will be charged with making it all work.

There is little argument Trubisky is a better passer than Williams. With Trubisky, the passing game will function more efficiently since he will be more consistent in hitting his receivers. Williams was capable of making the necessary throws but after five years and three with some of the same receivers still missed on the timing and placement of passes. Some of the plays in Larry Fedora's system require pinpoint and perfectly timed throws. Quick outs to Switzer or hitting Logan coming out of the backfield demand the throw be on time and in stride. If the receiver has to stop to field a throw that's behind him or high, the holes created by the blocks might disappear. Missing a relatively easy pass to a receiver on the sideline on 1st and 10 put UNC behind schedule too often. Trubisky can make those throws work and the offense should have a much higher basement as a result.

The only step down from Williams to Trubisky is in the running game but not for the reasons people might think. Trubisky's speed is comparable to Williams, he is mobile and can make plays with his feet. The difference is Williams is more athletic and better built physically. His strength allowed Williams to escape sacks, brush off hits in the pocket and still make plays. The jury is out on how elusive Trubisky can be when facing the same pressure. From an offensive standpoint, Trubisky has the speed and mobility to be a run threat in the offense. Couple that with his passing ability and you get a quarterback who will be very tough to defend.

UNC will start the season probably in the top 20 and immediately be tested. The Tar Heels will face Georgia in Atlanta to open the season. ESPN's too early poll has the Bulldogs 23rd. Once again, UNC faces a tough test to start the season. If UNC passes it, then it establishes credibility early, something the Tar Heels didn't have last season thanks to the South Carolina loss in Charlotte. If the Tar Heels lose, it will be a setback though Georgia likely won't go into the tank the same away South Carolina did so in that respect it won't hurt nearly as much.

At any rate, just 235 days until kickoff.