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UNC Football: An early look at what’s ahead for the 2019 season

Can Mack Brown bring some magic back to Kenan Stadium this season?

Pittsburgh v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Signing Day is long gone, spring football wrapped up a few weeks ago, and Media Day isn’t for a couple months. On the football calendar, we’re officially in the dog days of summer. From now until August, we’re all going to be eating up any scrap of news we can get our hands on. Now is when we can start looking at schedules, depth charts, opponent rumors, and every other way we can entertain ourselves while waiting for football to start.

All this waiting can lead the imagination to come up with some crazy scenarios. Between now and September, anything from winning the Orange Bowl to losing an unprecedented nine conference games in an eight-game ACC schedule seems possible.

That’s where yours truly comes in. I’m here to help set some realistic floor and ceiling expectations for Carolina, and break down why they’re more likely to hit the ceiling this year than in the past few years. The ceiling is the roof, after all, so that’s what Mack Brown and Co. will be shooting for.

Quarterback Room

The biggest question mark for everyone is who will be rolled out as the starting quarterback against South Carolina in the season opener. Even last season, anytime current redshirt freshman Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin got on the field it was all about what they might be able to do as a full-time starter. The quarterback competition got even more interesting in December when four-star Florida State commit Sam Howell decided that he was going to play for Carolina instead.

A few months ago I wrote a film breakdown of Sam Howell. I attached the link which includes a full breakdown, as well as his high school film compared to Baker Mayfield and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral.

Simply put, Howell is the real deal. He’s a quick decision maker with a strong arm, both of which are huge in Phil Longo’s offense. While Howell is listed as a Pro-Style Quarterback, he’s shifty enough to make defenders miss. He has really good pocket presence for a young quarterback. You only need to watch a few reps to see why he was so highly touted coming out of high school.

While only appearing in four games last year, Cade Fortin is the quarterback with the most actual college experience. He looked really good against Virginia Tech before being replaced due to injury. Fortin finished the season for Carolina by attempting forty passes against NC State. Had Carolina not brought in a new coaching staff, it’s easy to think that Fortin would have been option 1A heading into the off season. With South Carolina being the first opponent of the season, that real game experience would matter, even if it was only four games.

Jace Ruder is the most mobile and natural runner of the three. Ruder came from an option-based offense in high school, so the biggest question last season was how quickly he’d be able to adjust to a more complicated college passing scheme. In his only action of the season against Georgia Tech, he played brilliantly before getting hurt and having to leave the game.

Most came away from the spring game saying that Ruder had out-played the other two quarterbacks. Ruder did have a really good game, but a close look at the replay showed that Sam Howell played just as well. Howell looked decisive, got the ball out quick, and showed that he has an impressive arm. When Ruder throws the ball it looks effortless, but when Howell throws the ball it feels like he’s on a mission.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet on Ruder starting the first game against South Carolina with Howell having an increasing role throughout the year. All three are really good players, however, and quarterback might be the most improved position on North Carolina’s roster from a year ago to now.

Schedule

The break on the schedule last season was that Carolina didn’t have to play Florida State, Louisville, or Clemson. That will not be the case this year, as the Clemson Tigers will be making the trip to Chapel Hill.

Anytime the defending National Champs come to town it’s going to be a headline. The game I’m most intrigued by, however, is the Wake Forest game. It has nothing to do with Wake’s football team, but rather how the game came about.

The way ACC scheduling is set up, each team has eight conference games. Six of those games are against division opponents, one game is against the same “rival opponent” that you play every year (for North Carolina that team is NC State), and teams rotate one game a year with the six teams in the other division.

With fourteen conference teams and an eight-game conference schedule, this is really the only way to do it. One of the results of this scheduling setup is that North Carolina will only play the non-State Coastal teams once every six years.

That’s why UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham decided to schedule a home-and-home series with Wake Forest as a non-conference opponent in 2019 and 2021. Speaking to USA Today when the series was originally scheduled, Cunningham said this about why he decided to schedule the series with Wake Forest.

This is a unique opportunity to play a regional rival in years that fall outside the normal conference rotation. We have a long history with Wake Forest that has historical value and will generate interest within our fans.

The Wake game is how, in a worst case scenario situation, Carolina could lose nine conference games in an eight-game conference schedule. More importantly, this is the first time since 2015 that Carolina will play all three in-state ACC schools, so bring on the trash talk.

Opening the schedule against South Carolina in Charlotte is going to be a fun way to start the Mack Brown era 2.0, and the game against App State should be really entertaining. Almost every week is going to be a meaningful, significant game for the Tar Heels. As a fan that’s really all you can ask for, and it’s going to make for a fun season.

Winning

After winning five total games in the past two seasons, the only thing that really matters this year is bowl eligibility. Six wins is absolutely an achievable goal, but it’s still going to be tough. We saw last year how easy it is to lose close games that can go either way. Optimists will say that Carolina will regress to the mean and win more of those one-possession games. Pessimists will say that with a new coach and a talented but inexperienced quarterback, those growing pains will continue in 2019.

What’s most likely going to happen is there are going to be some crazy highs that come along with some heart-breaking lows. Expectations for this team are sky-high right now, and they’ll be even higher in August. We’re all hungry for more on-field success, and bowl eligibility is a realistic expectation this season.

Hail 2 Pitt

2019 is the season of bucking trends and establishing a new era. One trend that we’d like to hang onto, however, is beating Pitt irregardless of how the rest of the season turns out.

No matter what happens this year, now is as good a time as any to remind you to enjoy the offseason. When the Tar Heels kick off against South Carolina, enjoy both the highs and the lows that come with every football season.