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UNC Football: Can Carolina bounce back in 2018?

With an off-season that created more questions than answers, we’re going to discover a lot early on about this season’s Tar Heels.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Carolina opened the 2017 season by blowing a 10-point lead to Cal, which kind of summed up the entire season. There’s a lot of reason, however, to believe that UNC was better last season than their 3-9 record, and will be able to bounce back and get to bowl eligibility again. We’re going to look at why the Tar Heels were better than their record showed last year; and why despite an off season that seemed to generate more questions than answers, fans in Chapel Hill should be at least hopefully optimistic about the chances of going bowling this season.

2017

Since Larry Fedora’s first year as a head coach in 2012, North Carolina had never failed to reach at least six wins until last season. The Tar Heels only won three games, and two of those were against Old Dominion and Western Carolina. However, if you look back at last season there were three games that were over somewhere between the pregame speech and kickoff. The remaining six games Carolina at least had a shot. They probably didn’t have a legitimate shot against Louisville, but the Cal, Miami, Duke, Virginia, and I believe even the NC State games Carolina either blew a lead, or had chances late in the games.

Carolina did beat Pitt in a one possession game, so they didn’t lose every close game. That’s a solid 1/7, or .143 win percentage in games decided by less than two touchdowns. Disregarding everything else that went wrong last year, and all the reasons to expect previous issues will be at least improved, if not resolved, statistically UNC should at least regress to the mean and win more than one of those close games. There are actual on field reasons to believe that the Tar Heels will improve on last season.

Schedule

Something that I haven’t heard Tar Heels fans be thankful enough for is the way the 2018 schedule lines up. Because of the way the ACC schedule lines up this year, UNC misses Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, and a physical Boston College (who is going to be a lot better than typical Boston College this season.) They also miss Wake Forest, which would have been nice. But they do play Syracuse, who other than their win against Clemson in the Carrier Dome was less than spectacular in 2017. The NC State game is going to be tough, but the importance of missing those first four teams can’t be understated.

As far as the non conference schedule goes Carolina has to start off on the road at Cal. Playing in Berkeley isn’t exactly playing a night game in Baton Rouge or anything, but going across three time zones and the entire country is hard to adjust too, no matter who you’re playing. Cal is a deep team, that is extremely talented at running back and defensive back. It’s going to be a huge game for both teams. They also play East Carolina in the second game, and a Central Florida team that returns quarterback McKenzie Milton from a team that finished #6 in the country after an undefeated season and a Peach Bowl Championship. UCF is a team that UNC can beat, but it’s one of those games that if they lose and the Tar Heels don’t become bowl eligible, it’s a game that will haunt fans in Chapel Hill. Carolina’s non conference slate wraps up against Western Carolina the week before the season finale, sandwiched in between the Duke and NC State game.

As hard as it is to adjust to playing in three different time zones, the rest of the year UNC only has to leave the state of North Carolina three times, (and one of those games is in Charlottesville, Virginia.) They get to play Virginia Tech, NC State, and Georgia Tech all at home. The conference road games Carolina has to play aren’t as bad as they could be. Unless Miami is playing FSU or it’s a top 10 matchup the Orange Bowl isn’t exactly rocking. Syracuse beat Clemson at home last season, but upsetting superior teams at home isn’t one of the main characteristics of the Orange. Virginia is on the road, Bronco Mendenhall is still trying to get his team up to ACC level talent (his words, not mine.) Duke is the last conference road game, and it’s going to be a hostile environment in Wallace Wade stadium. But if Tar Heels fans could switch the Duke game to be at home, and the Virginia Tech game to be on the road, I don’t think many folks in Chapel Hill would take you up on that offer.

Some tough games for sure, every team in the Coastal Division is going to be a tough game. Cal and UCF are underrated in terms of difficult out of conference games. But all things considered, the schedule couldn’t really line up much better than it did for North Carolina this season.

Offense

Now the fun stuff. I am so excited to see the offense that Larry Fedora puts on the field this year. They’re loaded at running back, deep at receiver with a star in Anthony Ratliff-Williams, intriguing talent we’ll say on the offensive line, and two quarterbacks with starting experience.

Running back is the most talented position on offense for Carolina this season. Last year both Jordan Brown and Michael Carter rushed for over 500 yards last season. UNC is adding Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams, a former four star running back recruit from the state of North Carolina. Michael Carter broke his wrist in training camp, and scheduled to miss the first two or three games of the year, so around the time conference play starts against Pitt. The running game should still be the strong suit of the offense without Carter, but when he comes back and Carolina has three running backs who are legit talented starters, then that’s going to allow Fedora to get extremely creative with his formations and play calling. I’ve been saying all summer that we’re going to see two of the three on the field together in some capacity, if for no other reason than to get the best players on the field.

Speaking of best players, Anthony Ratliff-Williams is an all conference talent. He is Carolina’s best option at receiver and in the return game. But there are about seven to eight players who can see the field at receiver this year. Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown are shaping up to be considered “starters” alongside ARW, but Carolina has the depth to run four receiver sets, as well as rotate snaps on the outside. That’s going to allow us to see players like Antoine Greene, Beau Corrales, Thomas Jackson and others see the field as well.

With both running back and receiver being so deep, Larry Fedora is going to have a lot of flexibility in terms of situational packages he can run, and as we get later into the year we’ll see which player packages work best in this offense.

Which leads us to quarterback. In my previous article I went over what we can expect from the quarterbacks behind Chaz Surratt and Nathan Elliot on the depth chart. Realistically though, and ideally, the only quarterbacks seeing meaningful action this year are Elliot and Surratt. Surratt is going to be the starter at least for the first four games, and unless it’s a complete diasaster up to that point, Larry Fedora would be hard pressed to give the job right back to Surratt. If UNC is 1-3 heading into the Miami and Virginia Tech games, then they’d be staring down the barrel of a possible 1-5 start so Fedora would want to right that ship as quick as possible. More realistic though would be Carolina being 2-2 or 3-1. Even if Elliot doesn’t play spectacular, if he does enough to win and can let the playmakers on the team shine, then Fedora will probably stick with Elliot all season.

Defense

Defensive line, defensive end in particular, is the position being hit the hardest by sneaker gate. Malik Carney especially is an All-ACC caliber player. Because multiple players at the same position are missing games, the NCAA granted UNC a waiver to stagger some of the suspensions. So Carney is missing the ECU, UCF, Pitt, and Virginia Tech games. Which means he’ll play in the opener, and also play against current #8 Miami in the middle of his suspension. Missing Carney will hurt, so if Carolina’s pass rush can hang out without him they should be in great shape down the final stretch of the season. The defensive tackle spot has a lot of experience coming back, as well as former four star recruit and Tennessee Commit Brant Lawless, who joined UNC just about a month ago.

The linebacking corps is returning a lot, including leader and the other All-ACC caliber player on defense in Cole Holcomb. Watching Holcomb play, the one word that comes to mind is fast. He flies to the football, can cover sideline to sideline, and can fill holes quickly. His speed also allows him to stay on the field in obvious passing situations, and gives Carolina’s defensive staff flexibility when Carolina is playing spread offenses like Miami and Virginia Tech.

Carolina also returns Jonathan Smith and Dominique Ross as probable starters. College football is shifting more and more to the nickel package, with two linebackers and a fifth defensive back, as the base defense because of the way offenses are changing. So how often these three are on the field together will most likely vary by game, but linebacker is the position with the least questions marks on defense.

The defensive backfield is going to be the funnest group to watch this year, and a lot of that is because of junior cornerback K.J. Sails. He celebrates an incomplete pass like I’d celebrate getting a star when I’m in first place in Mario Kart. There’s competition at the other cornerback slot, and we should expect to see both Patrice Rene and C.J. Cotman getting the majority of the snaps at the other corner spot.

Senior J.K. Britt is the projected starter at strong safety. At nickel back there has a been a real competition from spring throughout fall camp. New cornerbacks coach Henry Baker has been on record stating how impressed he is with true freshman Bryson Richardson, (he was one of the freshman featured who I thought could make an impact this season.) Having a true freshman starting at nickel isn’t ideal, but Baker has said that Richardson “According to Baker, Richardson “did an unbelievable job of showing the ability to be able to handle everything that that nickel has to be able to do.”

Realistically though the defensive backfield is going to be a fluid depth chart. Depending on the matchups week to week we can expect to see C.J. Cotman getting reps both outside, and in the slot. We haven’t even mentioned Junior Myles Wolfolk yet, who has (arguably) the best ball skills on the team and was tied for the team lead in interceptions last year. Wolfolk played mostly nickel last year, but is probably more suited for a box safety type role because of his tackling ability. Playing in as a safety would allow him more freedom to utilize his ball skills as well, as opposed to tracking slot receivers.

The depth at defensive back is a good problem to have. Again, defensive line is the most talented group on defense, but Carolina has so many players who can play multiple positions on defense that will allow them to go week to week and be creative with their game planning for each opponent, which is hard on an offensive staff having to prepare for multiple personnel sets.

Outlook

The number one focus for UNC this season should be becoming bowl eligible again. If Carolina gets to six wins, then it’s been a successful year. Anything above that is fantastic, but if Carolina ends the year 6-6 then no one in Chapel Hill should be complaining. Getting to bowl eligibility is probably pretty close to what Carolina is capable of as well this year, and they should finish with between five and seven wins.

If Carolina goes 2-2 in out of conference play, which isn’t a given, that means realistically they’d have to win four out of six against Pitt, UVA, Duke, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, and NC State. That’s why winning one of the Cal or UCF games is so crucial to Carolina’s bowl eligibility, it gives them just a little bit more breathing room in conference play, especially because so many of those teams on their schedule are so close in talent, you can’t bank on any conference wins.

UNC has the talent to win one of those two big out of conference games, meaning they’d go 3-1 out of conference and need three ACC wins to get bowl eligible. Six wins is right about where the talent of this team lines up, they could get to 7-5, but going 6-6 is a much more realistic expectation. For Carolina fans though getting back to bowl eligibility should be the top priority, and if the Tar Heels can do that this year, than the 2018 season will be a success.