North Carolina’s football program under Larry Fedora has been one characterized, quite simply, by the following template: explosive offense, shaky defense, excellent special teams.
The linchpins of last year’s offense—Mitch Trubisky, T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins—have all taken their talents to the NFL (along with multi-year OL starters Lucas Crowley, Jon Heck, and Caleb Peterson).
Special teams loses Florida State-trolling legend Nick Weiler and the dynamic return ability of Logan and Switzer.
The defense? It returns largely intact, but even it loses early-entry DT Nazair Jones, and defensive coordinator/savior Gene Chizik.
What does it mean?
The 2017 Tar Heels are a complete wild card in the improving Coastal Division, and a case can be made for this being a 10-win team...or one that wins four.
The Optimistic Approach
Fedora’s offensive scheme has been dynamic for five years now, and has seamlessly integrated the strengths of three very different quarterbacks in Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams, and Trubisky. In Brandon Harris, who was criminally miscast at LSU, the Heels have a guy who was more highly-touted as a recruit than all three.
So, if Harris (or Chazz Surratt, or Nathan Elliott) pans out, and a group of 8-10 untested receivers ends up being so talented that the confusing depth chart we’ve seen in the fall is misdirection, not desperation, the offensive line is fine, Michael Carter becomes Gio Bernard as a true freshman, the solid group of tight ends collectively produces a 2014 Eric Ebron season...or really, two of those four things happen, the offense should be okay.
(NOTE: This also includes the defense taking the next step in its progression, where the front seven produces pressure and the backs produce turnovers.)
What does that look like on paper? A fun 45-21 win over Cal, a big win at Old Dominion, and a 2-1 start to ACC play. Make no mistake, a 4-1 September puts the Heels near the top 25 and makes this writer a happy man.
Opening October with a win over Notre Dame, who still went 4-8 last year, gets the Heels to 5-1. A home win against UVA gets them bowl-eligible, and a split at Virginia Tech and home against Miami lands a 7-2 (4-2) record going into a MUCH-needed bye.
The Heels come off the bye re-energized and do what they’ve always done against Pitt since the Panthers joined the conference: win. With nine days to prep for Western Carolina, the boys in blue essentially gain a bye week before a date at pesky NC State, which is won by a 65-10 score.
A 10-2 North Carolina team is unlikely, but not completely out of the question. There probably isn’t a game this year where the Heels will enter as double-digit underdogs. Best case, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pitt, and N.C. State are tricky. In this scenario, a 5-2 record in toss-ups, no upset losses, and a berth in the ACC Championship game are in the picture.
In Charlotte, Carolina channels the energy it used to jump out to a 21-0 lead in Tallahassee last year, and wins a 43-39 shootout against the Noles.
If THIS Carolina team reaches the Orange Bowl, do we even care about the rest of the story?
What if Nothing Works?
There’s a non-zero chance that this defense, touted as the best in the Larry Fedora era, regresses big time without Gene Chizik’s steady hand. The ‘more aggressive’ approach leads to safeties running helplessly to catch open receivers a la Tre Boston’s dreadlocks flapping in the wind in 2014. The offense, given its question marks, will have its moments. With Harris proving he’s mentally shot from his three years at LSU, Surratt not ready for the bright lights, and Nathan Elliott unable to take the top off the defense, opponents stack the box and dare the Heels to throw—which they can’t.
On a game-by-game basis, the first warning signs come against a plucky Cal team. Justin Wilcox implements a major turnaround for Cal’s defense in week one, and their offense doesn’t miss too many beats from last year, continuing the Heels’ disturbing trend of opening with L’s against P5 teams. Lamar Jackson does Lamar Jackson things in week two, and the reeling Heels squeak out a road victory against Old Dominion in a game that answers no questions.
Valuing my job, I will not dare speculate about a home loss to Duke, but the Heels close September with an ugly loss in Atlanta, going an uninspiring 2-3 with close wins and blowout losses.
October gets worse. Notre Dame makes Mitch Vingle look like a prophet and blows the doors off. Virginia ends its eight-game skid against the Heels in a physical, dirty game, probably in hurricane conditions, evoking memories of the “Shoop Game” in 2009—a 16-3 loss. A trip to V-Tech is no better, and a surging Miami team pushes the Heels to 2-7—already a lost season.
With the train off the rails, the youth movement begins in earnest. Redshirts are burned, and true freshmen such as Jake Lawler, J.T. Cauthen, and Malik Robinson have their moments but play too sparingly to justify a loss of eligibility. Thursday night in Pittsburgh is a reverse 2008 Rutgers, as the Heels help a late Qadree Ollison push towards a dark horse Heisman campaign.
All is well against Western, as the youth shines and the Heels score at will, but the defensive regression is in full force as the Catamounts still score 28 points.
There are situations where a 5-7 campaign could be encouraging, depending on where the wins and losses come. A return to competence would surely happen in 2018, with 2019 now looking like the next Coastal contender.
A 3-9 season would be devastating, as key 2019 recruits look elsewhere. As the NCAA lays down the hammer, extending the appeals and court process into the rest of the decade, Larry Fedora abandons the sinking ship and takes the Texas A&M job.
My god, this is dark.
The truth is, this Carolina team is a 6-to-8 win team, as the Heels are strong favorites in five games, big time underdogs in four, and relative toss-ups in three. Bill Connelly has the Heels at 6.3 wins, but his metrics generally fail to account for transfers, of whom there are many to improve the projected offensive S&P rank of 59th.
A seven-win season keeps the ship on course. Eight is a pleasant surprise, and anything more calls for another raise and extension for the head coach.
If Carolina scrapes to a 6-6 record and a Bad Boy Mowers Gasparailla Bowl appearance, at least the Heels got to play in the inaugural Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. This team should have a steady enough defense to get to bowl eligibility, and the alarm bells will ring if the wheels come off.