The 2017 football season is starting to come into focus, with kickoff against California just a little over two months away. More news coming from Chapel Hill concerns the football team than the basketball team, and before long the crunch of football cleats leading into Kenan will dominate the landscape.
The end to 2016 has led to an uneasy feeling going into 2017. Losers of three out of their last four, the loss of multiple-caliber players, the loss of Gene Chizik, no sure-fire answer at quarterback, a new defensive scheme…all of this doesn’t give one a steady feeling going into the fall.
I’m here to posit this theory: Don’t worry about 2017 and just enjoy the ride.
The last time Carolina was in this big unknown situation was 2015. The 2014 season had ended badly, there was a lot of grumbling coming from some of the team, the defense was simply atrocious, and Marquise Williams hadn’t exactly stood out as a quarterback you could count on. Fedora constantly dodged questions over who would start the season, and because of the shaky season, no one knew just how good the offense could really be.
I’d say 2015 answered a lot of those questions.
The thing about college football is that you can have a successful season even if you only win 6-7 games. The bowl system allows for that, and Fedora has managed to take his Tar Heels to a bowl game in every year but one: 2012, when he was forced to sit out before he even settled into his visor. Yes, a ton of talent left Chapel Hill, but Fedora has brought in a Top-30 recruiting class as well as four graduate transfers. The grad transfers are key because those are kids who earned the right to play three years at another school and you were able to convince them that their next best step was to come to Carolina and compete for a spot. This new blood that has a tinge of experience will provide some depth that will, at the very least, help the younger players grow up quicker.
Another reason to enjoy the ride is the best home slate in Kenan for quite some time. Both Louisville and Notre Dame come to Chapel Hill in 2017, as does Miami. Carolina also will be seeking to recover the Victory Bell in Kenan from Duke. All of these games should bring energy to the team and the stadium, providing for a fun atmosphere.
There’s also reason to be optimistic about the timing of the Louisville game. It’s the second game, and at noon. Carolina will have played against a rebuilding Cal the week prior in Chapel Hill, while Louisville will be coming off a game in Indianapolis against Purdue in primetime. Add to this the lack of tape Louisville will have on (likely) Brandon Harris as well as the new scheme on defense, and the formula is there for an upset. Even if they don’t, Louisville will be a good measuring stick for the rest of the season, and should help them get to six wins and a bowl game.
The biggest reason to enjoy 2017 is having the knowledge that Fedora is starting to win over some top recruits. He’s already matched his 2017 four-star total in 2018, and rumors persist over more that are giving Carolina a look that most fans had all but given up on. Recruiting becomes a snowball going downhill, you lock up one player, it causes another to give your school a look, and so on. The last two seasons have made some of the upper echelon talents in the country look at Carolina, and the results of the 2017 NFL draft will cause more.
Carolina’s schedule, on paper, looks tough. That said, last year, Mitch Trubisky was a big question mark and their schedule looked pretty tough. Had they not played in a hurricane and Mack Hollins stayed healthy, the team was on the verge of getting a second shot at the team that became the National Champions. That’s a pretty good year for a huge unknown. That, plus the success of 2015, and it makes you think that Fedora should be given at least some benefit of the doubt. Andrew Salmon has already told you why Brandon Harris could step right in and keep the engine humming along, and chances are Fedora has seen everything Andrew saw and more.
Great opponents coming to Kenan, the thrill of recruits yet to come, the feeling that an eight-win season will be a huge accomplishment and likely lead to a Tier 1 bowl in either Charlotte or New York…there is a lot of potential in 2017. Most think of it as a bridge year, I think of it as the next step: great programs keep producing in “down” years, and if Carolina can end this season in a Tier 1 bowl, fans and recruits should see that Chapel Hill is a place for success.
So, sit back and enjoy the ride. Momentum definitely appears to be headed in the right direction, and that helps make the unknown a little easier to take.