North Carolina did not drop a conference game en route to winning the ACC Coastal Division last season. They finished at least two games ahead of everyone in the division, and clinched a spot in the ACC Championship Game in the penultimate game of the season.
This season, the Tar Heels again have aspirations of winning the division and going to the ACC Championship Game. However this season, North Carolina will likely have at least one ACC loss: at Florida State. Due to that fact and the likely improvement of some other Coastal teams, if North Carolina is to return to Charlotte, there are some game they probably must win.
UNC opens the conference season at home against Pittsburgh on September 24th. Last season, Pitt finished second in the Coastal, and would have won the division had they beaten Carolina.
Pitt running back James Conner return for the Panthers this season after battling cancer. They also return a couple all-conference lineman, and Pat Narduzzi is their coach, so the defense will probably be good.
In addition to Pitt likely being a good team, that game is also the week before Florida State for UNC. Considering that it’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will probably be the favorite should both teams’s early results go as expected. However, Pitt is not a pushover, and UNC definitely can’t get too far ahead of themselves looking towards the next week.
On October 15th, North Carolina will travel down to Florida to play Miami. UNC beat the Hurricanes pretty handily at home last season, but some things have changed for Miami.
Miami were picked second in the Coastal by the media, and a lot of that likely has to do with the hiring of Mark Richt. Miami went 5-3 in conference in a season where they fired their coach.
Miami is likely to be at least a decent team in 2016. If everything goes right transitioning over to a new coach, they will absolutely be in the mix for the Coastal title, making this game pretty important.
UNC’s sixth and seventh ACC games also will be crucial. One because they’re both in-division games, but also because of the amount of time in between them.
North Carolina plays Georgia Tech on November 5th, and five days later will play Duke in a Thursday night game. Neither of these teams was picked among the Coastal favorites, but they both have potential to be solid bowl teams at the very least.
Even if UNC beats Georgia Tech, the five day turnaround after playing a triple option team isn’t ideal. It may turn out to not be an issue, but it’s probably not preferred from a pure football angle.
Considering North Carolina’s run defense and the crazy comeback it required to win last year’s game, a loss against Georgia Tech wouldn’t be totally unexpected. If that did happen, then the importance would be turned up even more than it normally would be for a Duke game, should Carolina be in the Coastal race.
Obviously, North Carolina would like to win every conference game. However, should UNC be in the race for the Coastal Division, those are probably the games that will probably most shape their fate.