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This season is crucial for Larry Fedora

Without a doubt, the North Carolina football program is all Fedora’s. With that comes a whole new set of expectations.

ACC Championship - Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

No, Coach Larry Fedora isn’t going to be fired if UNC only wins six or seven games this season. There’d surely be disappointment but, after signing an extension until 2022, Fedora and North Carolina are closely tied. Take away one questionable decision (ahem Tim Beckman), and it’s clear that Carolina wants Fedora to be the face of UNC football for a long time to come.

He helped steer the program through a difficult period of sanctions and scrutinizing media attention. The football was a little erratic at times, with a successful first year built on players from the previous tenure followed by two disappointing and frustrating seasons. All that culminated last year with one of the best seasons in recent memory, bolstered by his extremely effective offensive system. Now, as the new season is about to begin, the program is unquestionably Fedora’s.

With that, of course, comes a whole new set of expectations and desires for the UNC football program. In Fedora, most people in and around Chapel Hill see the coach that can finally get the Heels consistently competing with Clemson and FSU. The town and university so centered on what happens in the spring can have something to root for and be proud of in the fall. The question now becomes not if Fedora can stabilize the program and move it forward; it’s just how far can he take UNC on Saturday afternoons?

With some success and sustained recruiting, the expectation will be eight or nine wins every season in Chapel Hill. Our staff here at Tar Heel Blog mostly predicted a 10-2 season. We might be homers, yes, but there’s a lot of belief and confidence brewing around this team. There was a lot of excitement heading into last year, although that was almost immediately squashed in the opening weekend loss to South Carolina. Still, this season seems to be a harbinger of the future, and what happens over the next few months can certainly put the program on a positive or negative path.

Firstly, everybody on this squad is a Larry Fedora guy, someone he recruited for his system, play style and personality. As great as Marquise Williams seemed to fit with what Fedora wanted to do, he wasn’t recruited by him. Ditto defensive standout Shakeel Rashad. When Mitch Trubisky takes the field with the other Heels on Saturday, it’ll be the first time that the program is 100% Fedora. All these players and athletes are ones that Fedora and his staff watched, analyzed, and deemed compatible with their team.

This is both enticing and daunting, as Fedora will now take all the brunt of any future criticism. He can’t blame sanctions, previous coaching, or anything like that anymore. If Trubisky struggles, it has something to do with Fedora. On the flip side, if Trubisky thrives and the offense keeps demolishing ACC defenses, it’ll be a testament to Fedora and his impact on the program.

Elsewhere, this season is also important in terms of Fedora’s continual improvement as a head coach. The players love him. He’s smart about his staff (think of Gene Chizik more and less the aforementioned Beckman). He’s a great face in Chapel Hill, a genial personality who students, alumni, and fans all seem to enjoy. His offensive system is both fun to watch and incredibly successful.

But, if there’s one criticism still to be made about Fedora’s coaching, it’s in the week-to-week preparation (particularly big games that open and close the season). He has yet to beat South Carolina in both opening games. Last year was particularly brutal. As the season went on, UNC was clearly the much better team, but their offense was completely inept in that game. Fedora didn’t make the adjustments in-game with Williams and strangely didn’t give the ball to Elijah Hood in the red-zone. He appeared unprepared for that game’s challenges and didn’t make enough changes during it to get the team to a win.

Similarly, bowl games have exasperated North Carolina under Fedora. The teams typically have a whole month to prepare, yet the Heels have looked sluggish, unmotivated and nothing like themselves at times. Against Baylor last season, a team with a wide receiver playing quarterback, the Bears ran all over UNC. The Heels simply couldn’t stop them, even if they knew that’s what Baylor was going to do.

Yes, personnel issues affected that game, and the size of the defensive front for North Carolina was never going to really stop that effective a running game. But, fans and supporters don’t want to hear the reason for a deflating, prime-time loss is that “we didn’t have the right guys.” Fedora and Chizik needed to be better and showcase any sort of game-plan that would’ve given the Heels a better chance.

Last season Fedora proved that he can get his team to convincingly beat mediocre-to-good ACC teams. The big games against serious competition remain a mystery. UNC did play admirably against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and that same coaching performance and preparation needs to be replicated this season against Georgia and Florida State. If Fedora can get his teams ready for these games and make the right adjustments when needed, North Carolina is beginning to have the talent to compete with the best in college football.

Fedora has accrued a lot of goodwill in Chapel Hill. No matter what happens this season, he’ll be here again next fall. This season will instead set the tone for the Fedora program, one that could foreseeably go to 2022 and beyond. Will it be a team that consistently vies for the ACC crown, or one that gets close every three or four years? Winning eight or nine games with a new quarterback and a decently tough schedule would mean a lot for continuing the upward trend of the program. Winning a bowl game in late December or early January would do even more.