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UNC Football: The 2016 season in review

Should we consider this season a disappointment?

NCAA Football: North Carolina vs Georgia Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina football finished the year with a sputter, losing in the Sun Bowl to #18 Stanford 25-23. The Heels lost their final three games against FBS opponents to finish the season with an 8-5 record—although two of those wins were against FCS competition. This season was widely seen as disappointing for the Heels who came into the year ranked in the top 25 with expectations for another double digit win season and the ability to challenge for another Coastal Division title. Instead, Carolina struggled down the stretch, losing to State and Duke to forfeit any chance of getting back to where the team was last year.

With a bevy of quality upperclassmen leaving through graduation or draft declarations, next year looks to be a rebuilding one for the program. A lot of fans are now looking around wondering what is next for a program that seemed poised to break out as a burgeoning power just a few months ago. Now there is worry that they might slip back toward the fringe of bowl eligibility. Before we move onto next year, let’s first reassess 2016 and what it means for the program.


The offense has been the calling card of the Larry Fedora era of Carolina football. Fedora himself is an offensive-minded coach, he’s recruited players specifically for his offensive system, and when the program went through scholarship sanctions, he prioritized the offense over the defense. To many, this was what made the late season swoon so worrying. The Heels offense failed to score 28 points in their final three games against FBS opponents. NC State and Stanford have fine defenses but the Wolfpack lost to Boston College this season and Duke’s defense was downright bad this year.

Despite their late season struggles, the offense was better than most people would have expected. The Heels lost their starting quarterback, offensive coordinator, and their best offensive lineman from a season ago. Any team with those losses would be expected to struggle in their next season. Carolina also lost multiple offensive linemen and wide receiver Mack Hollins to injury during the season. Hollins’ loss was especially damaging for Carolina as they lost their deep threat on offense and were notably less explosive the rest of the way.


As much as the offense has been a bright spot in the Fedora era, the defense has been a sore spot. Two seasons ago, Carolina had one of the worst defenses in their history and one of the worst units in the entire nation. In response to that crisis, the Heels brought in national championship-winning coach Gene Chizik to fix the unit. In just two years, Chizik has made incredible progress. The Heels defense was arguably better than their offense this season, and the defense was even crucial in winning a few games.

Chizik’s unit kept the Seminoles in check for most of UNC’s trip to Tallahassee. They were able to hold off FSU for most of three quarters, allowing the offense to slip by. The defense also dominated Georgia Tech’s triple option attack, something the Heels have historically struggled to do. Even though these were quality performances by the unit, their greatest accomplishment was the win in Miami where Carolina held the Hurricanes to only 13 points. These performances highlight Chizik’s success as a coordinator and the value he has brought to the team. The defense improved a lot this season, and if it continues to improve next year, the Heels could be a pleasant surprise next season.

Going Forward:

This season was a mixed bag for UNC. The team definitely took a step backwards, with the season-ending losses a particularly hard punch in the gut for fans. However, the offensive struggles were not unreasonable considering the attrition on that side of the ball from 2015. The defense continued to improve under Chizik and Carolina was a much more complete football team this year, compared to last season, even though the team has a worse record. The true test of the Fedora era will come next season. The offensive weapons are leaving and so are a lot of the defensive stars that helped Chizik rebuild the unit.

Beyond the football field, the entire program is starting to show a bit more life. Coach Fedora has started to do what all good Carolina coaches need to do—win recruiting inside North Carolina. For a long time, schools like Georgia, Virginia Tech, and especially Clemson have been able to come into North Carolina and recruit the top high school football players. The Mack Brown era of Carolina football dominance was epitomized by the coach cleaning up inside the state while adding a few choice out of state prospects to augment each class. Under coach Fedora, that type of in-state dominance is returning. The Heels have four of the top eight players in the state committed to come to Chapel Hill next season. The team is also slated to improve their facilities and build out the rest of the program’s infrastructure over the next few years.

The 2017 season will show just how good this program is with this coaching staff and athletic director. Coach Chizik will need to develop new pieces in the secondary as well as on the defensive line. Coach Fedora will need to break new pass catching options, a new running back and, in all likelihood, a new quarterback. If the Heels can tread water or only regress slightly compared to this season, it will have to be considered a success.