Welcome to college football’s Week Zero, folks, and with it the first game of UNC’s football season. We’ll have pregame content for the Heels’ opener against Florida A&M later in the week, but today, we’re wrapping up our Season Preview series with a kind of recap and an outlook — now that we’ve taken a look at every position group on the roster as well as the changes to the coaching staff, where does that leave the program heading into the fall of 2022?
Like I said in my coaching preview on Friday, this season feels like an inflection point for the program as a whole. When I wrote it there, I meant it primarily to reflect that this is the year where we learn whether what Mack Brown brings to Chapel Hill is what the program needs, after being buoyed by the talent of Sam Howell and the euphoria of pretty outstanding recruiting results.
And while that’s still true, this season also feels pivotal for reasons beyond-ish Brown. For starters, it’s the team’s first season post-Howell, who, for all his shortcomings last season is still by a pretty wide margin the program’s best-ever quarterback. The options to replace him are significantly more inspiring than the last two times we’ve had an uncertain quarterback situation (mid-2018, where the choice between Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott was, put lightly, uninspiring, and then preseason 2019, where Cade Fortin, Jace Ruder, and Sam Howell all had some promise but all seemed to need some seasoning), but regardless of their pedigree and the chatter coming out of training camp about Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell, it’s going to be a tall order for either to immediately, seamlessly replace the program’s best signal-caller in their first real college action. And if they’ve got some of the expected growing pains, then it’s going to be on the rest of the team to alleviate them and help their quarterback rather than being helped by him. In other words, this feels like the year where we find out if things really have changed about UNC Football; if a much-maligned culture of mediocrity really has evolved with the arrival of a new regime or if it’s just been bluster and good quarterback play that helped us forget about it. Graduate transfer Noah Taylor recalled the locker room as “spoiled” when he’d first gotten there, and while he claims that’s been eliminated over the course of the offseason, that’s also the kind of thing you have to say when you’re advocating for your (new) team. Whether that’s for real and UNC actually can take a step forward as a program that plays to its talent and feels like the state’s flagship institution with this regime, we’ll only find out in the coming months.
Okay, back on track — what’s the outlook for this season of UNC football? It’s tough to say, because there are so many variables about which we don’t have enough information to even guess which way they’ll break. The new starting quarterback is probably not going to be outright bad, but there’s a lot of space between competent and good enough to help the team win, which is probably worth 2-3 wins on its own. Running back felt like a pretty sure thing before British Brooks’ injury, but now we’re going to be relying on players who have rarely taken a college snap to handle the bulk of the running, whether it’s last year’s backups Caleb Hood and D.J. Jones, rarely-used sophomore Elijah Green (who’s been highly praised this offseason), or true freshmen Omarion Hampton and George Pettaway. The wide receivers’ group has a proven star and almost nobody behind him — I don’t even mean anybody with experience; the group has just 6 scholarship players aside from Downs who’ll be ready to play Week 1, and we’ve got no idea if anybody will step up to give the new quarterback a second target to take pressure off the Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. The offensive line has a new coach and up to 4 new starters — it’ll be hard to be worse than last year at pass blocking, but could run blocking take a hit? On defense, changing coordinators is never easy, though things might be alleviated by the fact that the scheme doesn’t seem to be changing so much as the audibles on the field being culled from Bateman’s hyper-adaptive version. Some would call Chizik kind of an unknown after being away from coaching for five years, but he’s got a solid track record of pretty good defenses in his last several stops. But then again, this is a defensive roster with multiple four-star or better players in every position group — while “pretty good” was more than we could’ve asked for in 2015, and while it’d be a massive improvement from what we saw last year, it’d be hard to see a pretty good defense and not still think that the Heels were underachieving, which takes me back to the idea of this being a season about what kind of program UNC wants to be.
It is of course unlikely that every one of those variables gives UNC its most favorable outcome, and probably even less likely that all of them break badly. We’ll have a deeper look on Wednesday about what those extremes might look like. But for now, heading into the fall of 2022, UNC looks like a program that can be reliably okay but fumbled its first chance at being something bigger with last year’s failure to rise to the occasion. A few years of great recruiting means that window isn’t closed yet, and some positive changes have definitely been made, as well as a few others who we’ll have to wait to judge. But with a schedule that grants at least 4 and up to 6 teams that UNC should comfortably beat, anything less than 8 wins and a renewal of in-state supremacy would probably close the book on the outlook of this iteration of the program being anything more.