We are now just one day away from the Tar Heels opening the 2021 season against Virginia Tech on the road. This game will be a really good test for what is an extremely promising team, and if I am to cut to the chase, will also be a game that gives us an idea of how the rest of the season is going to go. You see, the Heels have an unbelievable amount of hype surrounding them in Mack Brown’s third season of his 2.0 campaign. Should the Heels lose this game, it likely doesn’t move the needle much as far as the ACC goes, but we should immediately lower the ceiling on a national level. They win this game, and well…we will cheer as if they did what they were supposed to do. Is that a weird thing to say? It should be, because we just haven’t been in this position in such a long time.
You see, this team in this current moment has a very high ceiling, and also a fairly high floor. We can argue back and forth about how bad things could get, but the fact of the matter is things should only get so bad. That is what I would like to discuss today: the best and worst-case scenarios for the 2021 football season. To kick things off, let’s start things with some positive energy.
Mack Brown stated in a press conference recently that he believes the Tar Heels are a year ahead of schedule, and to be honest I couldn’t agree more. Ever since Brown returned to Chapel Hill, we have gotten a Heisman-contending quarterback, a beefed up defense, extremely good skill players that just left for the NFL this past season, and some of the remaining skill players could be more than capable of making the absence of players like Dyami Brown and Javonte Williams seem less catastrophic. Former Tennessee running back Ty Chandler has brought his talents to Chapel Hill to help keep the ground game strong, and behind him are Caleb Hood and DJ Jones. At wide receiver, Emery Simmons, John Downs, and and Antoine Green will get the start against Virginia Tech, but players like Khafre Brown and (if he returns) Beau Corrales should provide meaningful contributions as well. All eyes of course are on Downs out of this stable, as he has been the most impressive player in the offseason.
When looking at the defense, Jay Bateman finally has a roster that should blow his playbook wide open. An experienced defensive line? Check. A deep, powerful linebacker core? Also a check. The secondary? The Heels only have Kyler McMichael, Storm Duck, Tony Grimes, Don Chapman, Ja’Qurious Conley, and Trey Morrison ready to haunt pass catchers this season. No big deal. Simply put: this is the most talented, experienced Tar Heels roster that we have seen in a long time. Sure, a lot of NFL talent was lost this past spring, but when looking at the overall picture, this roster is a College Football Playoffs roster.
If everyone stays healthy, and everyone performs as well as they are expected to, clearing the Coastal division should be a cake walk. I’m not sure that I believe this team is “undefeated in the regular season” good, so losing to Notre Dame is extremely possible and, in my opinion, an expected outcome. However, in this scenario they will dethrone Clemson in the ACC championship game, sneak into the College Football Playoffs, and lose in the national championship game. Did I really just write that? I’ll be honest, I can’t believe I just wrote that.
Season result: 13-1, ACC champions, (insert proper bowl game here) champions, and national runner-up
For anybody that think I was being too positive about this team’s ceiling, this section might be for you. See, this Carolina team is entering the season with a number of questions, and there’s just no way we can get answers until after tomorrow’s game against Virginia Tech. Is this wide receiver really prepared to live up to the expectations being set? Can the running backs really replace what Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were able to do? Is this defense really ready to take the next step, or will attrition once again find a way to make things difficult for Jay Bateman? Finally, will Phil Longo ever figure out what the hell to do in the red zone? The one guaranteed aspect of this team is that Sam Howell can get the ball to whoever he wants, but as much as I hate to say it, some of the pessimists out there could have every reason to question if this team really is a national contender. Not NC State fans, though: they are wrong and are going to get ran off the field in the final game of the season. Don’t worry.
So, if we are to believe that every reasonably bad thing happens with this team, what does the floor look like? If I had to guess, the absolute floor is losing the road home opener to Virginia Tech, losing to Notre Dame in South Bend, but still having enough luck on their side to make it to Charlotte only to lose to Clemson in infuriating fashion yet again. This would probably still be good enough for a New Year’s Six bowl game if we are to use last season as an example, but Sam Howell opts out and the Heels probably lose to a team like Iowa State (or Texas A&M again).
This would be such a bittersweet outcome, because repeating most of last season would likely be a hard pill for Tar Heel fans to swallow. However, I feel like every other team in the Coastal division would love to be in this position, especially knowing what talent is coming in for Mack Brown next season. Sam Howell will more than likely be gone, yes, but Drake Maye could be the answer to help get this team to where they would like to go. I like to think of this team as a boom or a much weaker boom team, but anybody who wants to call this boom or bust is within their rights. I am still washing the Larry Fedora era off of me, so you’ll have to forgive my sickening optimism.
Season result: 10-4, Coastal champions