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Ranking UNC football’s toughest 2016 road games

North Carolina needs to continue its recent away success if they want to truly build off of last year’s resurgence.

North Carolina v Clemson Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

The college football season is finally upon us, and North Carolina’s schedule offers the Heels the opportunity to find similar success as last year’s. Coach Fedora has turned Kenan Stadium into a reliable source of wins (zero losses last season). This season, Carolina’s toughest game in Chapel Hill will come early on against Pittsburgh but, outside of a rivalry game against NC State (always potentially tricky), the team should go undefeated at home again.

UNC getting sustained, impressive performances on the road could end up being the difference in them returning to the ACC Championship Game. Just last year, the Heels were much improved on the road, winning games at Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech—teams that had long frustrated them—among others. Most of their more challenging matchups will come on the road this season. North Carolina faces another SEC power, Georgia, at a neutral site and takes on an ACC powerhouse, Florida State, in their raucous stadium.

Interestingly, three of UNC’s road games will come against new head coaches (four if you count the Georgia game in Atlanta). All are exciting hirings meant to inject new blood into stagnant, often underperforming programs, and winning games at home will be important to kicking off their tenures.

With all that said, here is a ranking of the toughest road challenges Carolina will face in 2016:

1. At Florida State (October 1)

North Carolina hasn’t faced an away crowd like FSU’s since the team played Notre Dame a few seasons ago. The team performed admirably then, barely losing despite a herculean effort by Marquise Williams. The Seminoles are a whole different kind of challenge, particularly in Tallahassee. Mitch Trubisky certainly has never played in an environment like Doak Campbell, and whether or not he can step up will most likely decide this game’s outcome. If Trubisky struggles like an inexperienced QB, Dalvin Cook, those speedy wide receivers, and an unbelievably physical defense all backed by a roaring Noles crowd will be too much for the Heels.

2. In Atlanta against Georgia (September 3)

Neutral sites haven’t been kind to North Carolina during Fedora’s tenure (1-4 overall). He’s struggled in opening day games against SEC competition, too, and a big win over Georgia would mean a lot in terms of driving a positive narrative on the season. New coach Kirby Smart also has a lot of expectation on his shoulders. Bulldog fans are sick and tired of consistently underperforming, and an opening weekend loss to a school not considered a traditional power would already have supporters griping in Athens. The game will take place in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, so hopefully UNC fans can come out to support their team, but the atmosphere will probably be pro-Georgia.

3. At Duke (November 10)

Rivalry games are never easy, especially on the road. Even at such a small venue as Wallace Wade, Blue Devils come out in support of their reliably steady squad under Coach Cutcliffe. Fedora has had a mediocre record against Duke but has won the last two meetings. The Blue Devils will bring another solid defense, yet North Carolina’s offensive firepower should be more than enough to overwhelm them. Unless Duke wants to exact some revenge after last year’s embarrassing 66-31 beatdown, the Heels should be able to do what great football teams do: win their rivalry games.

4. At Miami (October 15)

Now begins the string of new head coaches that Fedora and company will face on the road; the most challenging should be the new-look Hurricanes under Mark Richt (formerly of Georgia). Much like Duke, North Carolina demolished the Canes in Chapel Hill last season 59-21, and many of the players should be looking to get the Heels right back. As far as home-field advantages go, Miami has an interesting one since their stadium is located far away from the main campus. They should have loud and daunting fans like their rivals in Tallahassee, but the logistics around their home stadium prohibit that a little bit. Miami doesn’t appear to be ready for a quick one-season turnaround under Richt, so expect a veteran UNC team to impress.

5. At Illinois (September 10)

Former NFL head coach Lovie Smith takes over in Illinois this season (his first time as a head coach in college), and Carolina will be his first big challenge in turning the program around. North Carolina easily handled a weak Illini squad last year in Chapel Hill 48-14, but the Big 10 atmosphere in Champaign will be something new. This game, too, comes a week after the showdown against Georgia and, win or lose there, Carolina can’t afford a loss to a mediocre team right after. Smith has a lot on his hands in Illinois, and there are currently no signs he’ll pull off his first major upset in the second week of his tenure.

6. At Virginia (October 22)

Virginia is probably the weakest school that the Heels will face on the road all year. The Cavaliers finished 4-8 last season, including a 26-13 loss in Chapel Hill, and hired BYU’s head coach Bronco Mendenhall in the offseason. For the first time in a while, there is some buzz and momentum in Charlottesville about the football team who only had one above-.500 season under previous coach Mike London. I sound like a broken record but, again, Mendenhall isn’t the panacea to what’s been ailing Virginia. It’ll take time for him to make over and improve the team and, until that happens, North Carolina shouldn’t have many problems with them.

Ultimately, of North Carolina’s six road games, only two are really big games—Georgia and Florida State. They’re only two games, but two uninspiring losses in both that early in the year could spell doom for the whole season. If UNC really wants to continue this upward trend under Fedora, big showings in Atlanta and Tallahassee are absolutely necessary.