We made it, folks. Summer has come to an end, and in a few days the 2019 college football season will kick off in Charlotte.
After a putrid 2018 that followed a horrid 2017, UNC quickly made a change at the top and decided to bring back a great name from the past: Mack Brown. Brown brought with him a national title won at Texas, experience in building a football program that had fallen on hard times, and eventually an almost entirely new coaching staff.
That coaching staff is the biggest unknown going into Saturday. Both the offense and defense are switching styles, and the coach at the top of the ladder employs a different style than the one the players were accustomed to. How have the players adapted to all of this change?
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell will be playing in this system free of any previous college experience, but he leads an offensive line and wide receiver core that has to adapt from Larry Fedora’s tempo offense to the modified Air Raid Phil Longo brings from Mississippi. That the depth chart has elevated some freshmen over returning players would seem to indicate that a few of the returners are having issues in assimilating to the new style. There’s also a question of just how Longo will use perhaps the best position group on the team, the running backs. Will the inexperience under center increase their work load?
On defense, the scheme change is even more dramatic. Co-Defensive Coordinator Jay Bateman is bringing a hybrid scheme over from Army, a defense that worked well for the limitations at West Point. Will the same defense work as well with presumably better athletes? How well will the secondary take to doing the play calls, and will the front improve because they will have less responsibility to read the opposing offense?
Don’t forget about the man at the top. Mack Brown has done just about everything right since taking over as head coach. He’s made the program more media-friendly, revitalized recruiting, actively reconnected with alumni and former players, pushed for renovations to the locker room and the installation of field turf, and taken an active role in trying to get fans back into Kenan. It’s hard not to have hope going into the season, but it doesn’t mask this basic fact: this will be Mack Brown’s first game as a head coach in five years. How much latitude will he give the coordinators before making the final call?
Also, will the team be prepared for their first game better than they have been the last few seasons? One can’t think they’d be much worse, but with Miami on the doorstep next weekend and the Hurricanes getting a week off before coming to Chapel Hill, how much will the new staff want to show?
In the end, the performance of the new coaching staff is the biggest X-factor going into Saturday. Success may not lead to a win, but the thing to look for will be signs that the team has adapted to the new staff. Otherwise, it could be another long season.