Expectations for UNC nationally probably couldn’t have been much lower than they were last year. Sure, the 2-win season preceding it probably looked worse than it was thanks to anomalously bad quarterback play and a lot of bad close-game luck, but it was still a two-win season. Add to that a wholesale coaching staff change (to a head coach that a lot of people didn’t really trust, at that), a starter at quarterback who would have a maximum of 1 college game started, and a schedule that started with South Carolina, Miami (they looked tough at the time), UCF, and Wake Forest, and things looked like they could get out of control quickly. But through some inspired coordinating hires by Mack Brown, the magic of Sam Howell, and Brown’s own improved leadership over the previous regime, UNC was a consistently dangerous team, and while they still put up some stinkers as the team came together, they played their best ball at the end of the season, made a bowl game, and then absolutely destroyed Temple on national television. This year, the situation’s almost the polar opposite of what it was last year: With top-25 initial rankings all over the map, UNC’s getting a lot more hype than you’d expect of a team that went 7-6. And yet, going through each of our position previews, it doesn’t seem unwarranted. Sure, it’s going to take some development from last year, but that’s really what you expect given a year of coaching continuity.
Obviously, an overall preview in the style of the previous previews doesn’t make much sense here, so I’ll just run through some stats:
- 100% of UNC’s 3,716 passing yards return, 87% of UNC’s 2,474 rushing yards return, and 97% of UNC’s receiving yards return. When you have good yardage totals, that’s a pretty reliable metric for predicting success, and in college football, that kind of returning production is almost unheard of.
- On defense, the Heels return 19.5 sacks and add a five-star recruit at pass rusher, Des Evans.
- Also, in their secondary, Storm Duck had the 35th-best PFF rating in the FBS at the cornerback position, Patrice Rene allowed a 41.3 passer rating in 2018 before being injured last season, and Sam Howell has been calling Trey Morrison at nickelback one of the best defenders he’s ever seen.
UNC has questions on both lines, but at the offensive skill positions and defensive 2nd and 3rd levels, they’ve got about as much talent as anybody in the country, and coaches on each side of the ball who have proven they know what to do with it: Jay Bateman is an absolute darling among UNC fandom for managing a lack of defensive line depth, a rash of injuries in the secondary, and two new starters at linebacker into a passable defense that managed to predict a goal-line running back pass against Duke and hold Clemson to just 21 points, and Phil Longo just architected one of UNC’s best offensive seasons ever with a true freshman quarterback and some trouble in the red zone that he didn’t quite figure out how to solve until Temple (hint: pass to your running backs). And the questions on the offensive line aren’t as bad as they seem; they’re more about depth than ability to play. If the starting line can stay healthy, they’ll be more than good enough for the rest of the offense to do its thing.
And anyways, line play is what will stop these Heels from being a Playoff contender, not what will hold them back from being very good. So they’re not ready to compete with the elites of the college football landscape yet. Even thinking about competing with them this soon would have been laughable just a year and a half ago, but this team, with Sam Howell leading the way and being supported as well as you could hope for, has made a lot of things look a lot more attainable very quickly. I don’t think that Top 25 placement is going to go away throughout the season, and if we get bowl games beyond the playoff, the Heels just might find themselves figuring into the NY6 picture if everything goes according to plan. Again, these are lofty expectations for a 7-6 team whose wins were against Duke, N.C. State, Mercer, Miami, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Temple. But the tape, and the SP+, don’t lie: This is a team that was playing well enough to compete with just about anybody by the end of the season, and with a year of cohesion, that’s the form we’re all expecting from them from Day 1. This is going to be fun, y’all.
And here’s an index of all our position previews to go back for: