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UNC Football: Breaking down the 2018 schedule

Two road games to start, tough early ACC stretch highlight the Heels’ slate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 North Carolina at NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What do you know, the ACC released its schedule with enough time for people to properly plan around weddings for once! As the league makes an effort to get with the times (the SEC typically releases the next year’s schedule in September the year prior, for example), the release date has crept up from later releases (January 29th, 26th, and 24th) in the three years prior.

With that, what can Carolina fans expect in the 2018 season? For starters, the home opener against DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPION Central Florida is no picnic. The first game against Syracuse since they joined the conference is the rotating Atlantic matchup. A trip to East Carolina in early September looks a lot less daunting with Lincoln Riley leading Oklahoma to the playoff instead of hanging 70 on our Tar Heels.

To the matchups!

Sept. 1: at Cal: The Golden Bears won Justin Wilcox’s head coaching debut in Chapel Hill last year, 35-30, in a game marred by stupid mistakes and poor tackling. The Heels make a return trip to Berkeley to open the campaign, and should have about even odds of getting revenge. The Bears finished the season 5-7 after a 3-0 start, and ranked 90th in offense, 97th in defense, and 87th in S&P+.

If the Heels can’t pull out a win here, it could be another long season.

Sept. 8: at East Carolina: This game is part of an agreement that sends the Heels to Greenville instead of another game in Chapel Hill, thanks to Carolina shifting to the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff against Georgia in 2016. ECU under (Duke alum, FWIW) Scottie Montgomery is a bad, bad football team. The second-year head coach oversaw the nation’s WORST defense in yards per game, giving up over 540. While the offense was decent, the Pirates finished 3-9 and 123rd in S&P+, giving up over 60 points four times.

Heels better be 2-0.

Sept 15: Central Florida: Scott Frost is out, and former Missouri OC Josh Heupel and his Baylor-style air raid is in. The Knights, famously, finished 13-0, beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, and have claimed the national championship as their own. Their offense was spectacular in 2017, and their defense was...good at forcing turnovers.

While coaching turnover for G5 teams has generally derailed their next season’s efforts, the Knights return their offensive core of McKenzie Milton, Otis Anderson, and Adrian Killins and five of their top six receivers. The defense suffered some losses, including former Tar Heel Mike Hughes. I’m personally happy to see him not come to Kenan and show out.

Does UCF have an undefeated season/coaching change hangover? Have the Heels improved at all? Does Heupel tinker too much with an awesome offense? Those questions will be answered in front of a small-but-hopefully-comfortable Kenan crowd.

Sept 22: Pitt: The Heels haven’t lost to Pitt since the Panthers joined the ACC. The Panthers lost three underclassmen to the NFL, including All-ACC OT Brian O’Neill, S Jordan Whitehead, and APB Quadree Henderson.

After a 5-7 finish last year, one starts to wonder if Pat Narduzzi is starting to feel his seat get a bit sweaty. The Panthers appeared poised for a breakthrough, but took a major step back in 2017, finishing 84th in S&P+ and salvaging their season with a Thanksgiving weekend upset of Miami.

Sept 27: at Miami: The Heels travel to “the U” on a Thursday night, and that is probably about the worst time to play at Miami (assuming they win over their frontrunning fanbase with a Week 1 win over LSU). Miami was “back” in 2017, starting 10-0 before losing their final three in rather pathetic fashion. All signs point to redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry taking over for the uninspiring Malik Rosier, so maybe the Heels can catch them in a transition phase.

Trips to Miami seem to play out in one of two ways: blowout loss or close win. Give me a close win to get to 4-1 or 5-0, and let’s declare the Heels back.

(Side note: what the Heel is up with this bye situation? Carolina has 16 days off? Glass half full, they can run a second set of installs like its fall camp. Glass half empty, that’s a poor allocation of off time, ACC schedule makers.)

Oct 13: Virginia Tech: Cue the hurricane jokes, as this game falls on the same week of the season as the 2016 debacle. The Hokies, for some reason, have a vendetta against Carolina. Guess they’re still salty the 2015 team ruined Frank Beamer’s last game. A 9-4 season in 2017 is typical Virginia Tech at this point, and the Heels need to do their part in stopping their ascendance back towards the top of the Coastal.

Oct 20: at Syracuse: Dino Babers has been good for one top-15 home upset in each of his two years...and you know what? If the Heels are ranked top-15, he can have another. I’m very guilty of never watching the Cuse play, but I do know Eric Dungey and Moe Neal will be back. Steve Ishmael and Erv Phillips, who combined for 194 catches in ‘17, will not. The Cuse was right on par with Cal (and Carolina) in 2017, finishing 88th in S&P+, with a none-too-impressive 64th-ranked offense leading the way. If the Heels have taken a step back to respectability, this should be a win.

Oct 27: at Virginia: The Hoos stopped Carolina’s 7-game winning streak in a close 20-14 game last year, and the Heels will look to make it a decade since they LOST in Scott Stadium (who ever thought we would be in position to say that?) Like Syracuse (and Cal, and Carolina) the Hoos weren’t good in 2017— 85th in S&P+. To their credit, they rode an easy early schedule to 5-1, got bowl eligible, beat damn near senseless by Navy in the Military Bowl, falling 49-7.

Micah Kiser? Gone. Andrew Brown? Gone. Quin Blanding? Gone. Kurt Benkert and his two favorite targets? You get the idea. Virginia should be bad again, and there will be much rejoicing.

Nov 3: Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson is still there, he actually returns key cogs of his offense, but this is a rare occasion where the Heels draw Georgia Tech later in the season. Hopefully their inevitable injuries have piled up.

This is either the next great Tech team, or a signal that the Johnson era will (soon) end with a 6-to-7 win program. The Jackets went 5-6 and missed a bowl this year (their game against UCF would’ve likely been a loss) and finished 73rd in S&P. If you’ve been paying attention, you should be sensing a pattern of the Heels playing not-very-good football teams this coming season. Even if it is the next great one, Carolina beat the Orange Bowl Champs in 2014...

Nov 10: at Duke: Somehow heartening that this is not a Thursday night game in Durham this year, only so I don’t have to hear Jesse Palmer drool over David Cutcliffe for 3.5 hours. It’d be great if you won this one, Heels. Duke started 4-0, lost six straight, then rallied to beat Tech, Wake, and Northern Illinois to finish 7-6, 65th in S&P++, and do just enough bad things to bring Daniel Jones back.

Nov 17: Western Carolina: Wait...we play them again? I have no analysis of the Catamounts, so a little anecdote. Three very loud, VERY drunk Western students sat behind me at the game last year, and one of them (presumably drunker than the others) fell asleep under the bleachers and vomited for approximately 38 seconds without stopping. I hope he’s okay.

Nov 24: N.C. State: The Pack RE-ESTABLISHED ITSELF ON THE NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS with a 6-1 start in 2017, as the defense was awesome and the offense was above average. Close losses to Notre Dame, Clemson, and Wake Forest derailed Cole Cubelic’s prediction of a CFP appearance for the Pack, and now they lose (among many others) Bradley Chubb, Jaylen Samuels, and Nyhiem Hines.

Listen, as Heels fans, we know what it feels like to have program-defining expectations putter out at the end. We just tend to win 11 games before they do. Go to hell, State.

Outside of Virginia Tech and Miami, none of the games on the schedule are ones one would think the Heels have less than, say, a 40% chance of winning. Include UCF in that group, and those are the only opponents who should spend any significant time in a top 25 poll.

With that said, UNC must win at least seven games against this schedule. Injuries and turnover were used as (reasonable) excuses for 2017’s 3-9 performance, and no such excuse should exist in 2018.