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UNC Football Previews: Overall

Let’s put it all together.

North Carolina Spring Game Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

And with that, our position-specific previews for UNC’s football season are over. Here are links to them all in case you missed any:

Running Backs
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
Defensive Backs
Special Teams

With just two days before UNC’s season opener in Blacksburg, it’s time to put it all together. As I said in yesterday’s coaching preview and has been a theme throughout our offseason coverage of this football team, the expectations for the Heels both internally and from fans are pretty dang lofty, generally landing around the “challenge Clemson for an ACC Championship” and “get to another NY6 Bowl and win it this time” ranges. Some of that hype is riding on the Heisman-contending right arm of Sam Howell, some of it is based on the goodwill that Mack Brown has continued to build around the program, some of it is plain old momentum after the Heels finished the 2020 regular season by absolutely demolishing a top-10 team, and some of it (particularly for those closer to the team) is based on the promise that a previously mediocre defense, with personnel additions and growth, is poised to make a huge leap and complement an offense that was top-10 in the country.

Fans and prognosticators for elite teams really like talking about how their seasons are condensed to a lot fewer games than are actually on the schedule because they consider so many of the games on their schedule auto-wins. It’s the kind of big-picture thinking that you can’t really indulge in unless your team has shown that it’s consistent enough to not make you sweat the easy stuff — and UNC, while good last year, definitely wasn’t that after suffering big upsets against Florida State and Virginia and nearly giving away another game to Wake Forest. And yet, many are calling this season for UNC a three-game season, with games against Miami, Notre Dame, and one of Virginia Tech/Florida State the only ones in doubt (Relatedly, it was very funny to see Mack Brown at the ACC Kickoff saying UNC has a three-game season, but meaning that he was only going to start thinking about bigger aspirations after the first three games). ESPN’s FPI has the Heels favored in every game they play but Notre Dame and Miami, and SP+, the probably more accurate tool, gives them a slight edge ahead of Miami as well. Weirdly for UNC teams of the past several years, just playing up to expectation this season would mean a wildly successful year for the Heels.

But that’s the rub: We haven’t yet seen that the Heels can manage to not play down to inferior opposition, eliminate costly mistakes, and consistently overpower weaker opponents the way a team needs to so that they can eliminate as many variables affecting their success at possible. Even though they comfortably handled Duke, Western Carolina, and N.C. State in the back half of the season, that was all sandwiched around a Wake Forest game that shouldn’t have been as hard as it was with a 59-53 final score. Everything we’ve said about the Heels in these previews has shown that they have the ability to be one of the country’s elite teams, if only they can clean up those lackadaisical tendencies. Mack Brown has overhauled a program in just two years and change from one in the college football gutter to one in the fringes of its shining lights, through great hires, recruiting, and a personality that has changed the locker room culture into one that believes in winning again. His challenge for this year is going to be simple: get the team performing, without hesitation or overthought, consistently at the high level they’re capable of. Once that’s established, we can go around thinking about overturning some tables, disrupting the Notre Dames, Clemsons, and other national powers of the sport. And it starts this Friday, against a Virginia Tech team that has about no advantages over the Heels. A convincing win would go a long way towards setting exactly that tone and putting UNC on the path it’s expecting.

Bring it on.