Lots of teams like to start slow. A few tune-up non-conference games; a couple easy wins to really get into the swing of a season; one or two quick additions to the win column before the real season begins in conference play — it honestly makes sense. When we come back to work after a vacation, we don’t always feel like immediately diving headfirst back into that months-long project that’s looming over us. As much as I hate using one sport metaphor to discuss an altogether different sport, sometimes it’s best to just take the layup. Send the email. Eat the cupcake. The issue with this type of scheduling, though, is that it’s tough to really know anything about your team after those should-win games. Unless, of course, you lose them, in which case you’ve certainly learned something about the team and have a whole host of other more pressing issues to address.
Some teams go the completely opposite way. Some start the season with a marquee matchup, front-loading their toughest opponents in their schedule so they can weather that storm and figure out where they stand in the aftermath. This is Duke hosting Clemson in Week 1. This is Indiana opening their season against Ohio State. This is the “just get it over with” approach, the season beginning with should-lose games that a team hopes to wallpaper over with more competent play towards the end of the season. This also doesn’t teach you a whole lot about your team, unfortunately. If you win these games as the underdog, it remains to be seen whether your team came into the season severely underranked or if the higher-ranked team was simply a paper tiger (see: Appalachian State over Texas A&M last year).
Some teams dispense with all of that. Some teams jump right into it, pretending to be neither David nor the Goliath, getting directly into the muck and hopefully learning something valuable from games that should be close on paper. The Tar Heels start the coming season (in under a month, unbelievably) with a trio of games that should tell us all a little bit more about this year’s team. First up is a tilt with South Carolina in Charlotte, followed by a two-week homestand hosting Appalachian State and Minnesota on sequential Saturdays.
South Carolina finished last season 8-5, in a Jekyll and Hyde season that saw the Gamecocks get walloped by an unranked Florida team, then turn around and nuke the fifth-ranked team in the country in Tennessee by 25 points. This was a team that could beat or lose to (almost) anybody in a loaded SEC schedule last season, and the September 2nd matchup won’t be a cakewalk.
Appalachian State (my beloved alma mater) may be the closest to a should-win game of these first three, and I’m certain I don’t have to explain too much further why that is a spooky proposition. While the Heels did schedule a G5 opponent in the Mountaineers, they are currently 1-1 in the last two meetings (with a 63-61 track meet going favorably for Carolina last season), and the team from Boone has a history of punching well above its perceived weight class. Like the Tar Heels, this Appalachian State team has some questions to answer after falling apart down the stretch last season (and losing key pieces in the offseason), but an early-season game against the Mountaineers can hardly be described as a pushover, even when they’re coming off a disappointing 6-6 season.
Minnesota was a respectable 9-win team last year, at no point threatening to win the top-heavy Big Ten conference but doing solid work beneath the top three teams and beating the ACC’s own Syracuse Orange in the Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl, despite dropping some head-scratchers in their own division. If Carolina wants to prove that they are better than a middling Big Ten team this season, they will have a chance in Week 3.
Carolina’s record coming out of the first three weeks of the season will do a lot to temper expectations. Unlike teams that opt to play easy season-opening schedules, or those teams that take on long odds to start things off, Carolina’s record will mean something concrete even before starting league play. A 3-0 record looks pretty good on the tail end of this opening, and a loss or two in this stretch will not be as easy to explain away.
Either way, we’ll know something about this team, and knowing is half the battle.