I waited until the last minute to write this preview not because I am a procrastinator, but because I know you have no inclinations of doing any work on Friday afternoon before Labor Day. Now is an ideal time to read about football and Tar Heels football in particular. Just think. By the time you finish reading this, you will be 5 or so minutes closer to vacay!
I can’t lie. I was surprised when the AP and Coaches Polls both tabbed the Heels as the No. 23 team in the country. Don’t get me wrong. It gives me an extra sense pride to see a number next to North Carolina in the fall as opposed to only March, but I don’t think it is necessarily warranted.
I’m guessing a lot of voters tabbed North Carolina in the top-25 because the team won six of its final seven games in 2013, including a dominant win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. There is no denying that was a solid accomplishment, especially after most left the team for naught following a 1-5 start. Despite some of his miscues, most notably his clock management against Miami, you must credit Larry Fedora and his staff for keeping the team focused and not giving up on the season.
However, who did Carolina beat during that stretch? Boston College, NC State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion and then Cincinnati. You might be surprised to know that four of those six teams finished 2013 with winning records. Only State and Virginia failed to do so. In fact, those two went a combined 0-16 in ACC games. L! O! L! Still, this half of the schedule was definitely weaker than the first half when the Heels dropped games to the likes of South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami.
Looking back on 2013, you cannot simply throw away the second half of the season, because it was vital for the momentum of the program. However, I do not believe wins over mediocre competition warrant a relatively high ranking the following season.
On the flip side, maybe the voters see what Carolina has coming back. The Heels rank near the top of the ACC with 15 returning starters, including 8 of the teams top 11 tacklers. That is key as the defense struggled last year. Those defensive returners should only get better, but the most jarring statistic come on offense. Either freshmen or sophomores score 46 of the 55 touchdowns North Carolina scored last year. That bodes well for a team that averaged just a hair under 33 points per game.
The key personnel-wise for the Heels is on each side of the trenches. The offensive line lost All-ACC caliber left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine, who will start for the Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday. Freshman John Ferranto and sophomore Lucas Crowley, who appeared in six games last year, will need to step up. The line came into their own late last season as demonstrated by the running game. Carolina averaged just 101 rushing yards in its first six games, but jumped to 183 per game in its final seven games. Hopefully the latter is the norm. The Heels have been spoiled with great offensive lines in recent years, so it will be interesting to see how the offense operates without sure-things up front.
On defense, can the defensive line, particularly the interior, improve on a run defense that ranked last in the ACC last year, surrendering 182 yards per game. That must be sured up. The NCAA okaying Ethan Farmer’s eligibility should help, but there isn’t much depth at the interior positions thanks to a couple academic casualties in the offseason.
Overall, I can see arguments both justifying and questioning North Carolina’s preseason ranking. Personally, I think it’s a bit high. However, I’m also jaded when it comes to Carolina football because nothing ever seems to go as planned. Now that I’ve bored you with numbers and such, here are my game-by-game predictions for the Heels this season. Since my new job will preclude me from going to most of the games, be sure to throw a few back for me. I’ll continue the tradition of yelling at Tre Boston at Panthers games. I. CAN’T. WAIT. Beat Liberty!
Aug 30: Liberty - WIN (1-0, 0-0)
Even without four of the team’s top defensive backs due an incident that falls somewhere in between group hazing and nothing, Carolina should put up plenty of points in this one and comfortably win. If not. Well, Jesus Christ, Lord help us. See what I did there, Jerry Falwell Jr?
Sept 6: San Diego St - WIN (2-0, 0-0)
Two night games in a row in Kenan Stadium? Blasphemy! I don’t know much about SDSU, but I know that they could give the Heels a scare. The Aztecs went 3-1 in overtime games last season, so Carolina doesn’t want this one to be close. I might predict an upset if it was on the other coast, but I’ll go with the Heels.
Sept 20: @ ECU - LOSS (2-1, 0-0)
This is ECU’s best team in a long time and they’ve had some solid squads recently. I actually think they stand a good chance of winning whatever podunk conference they are in now. While Carolina would love to avenge the shellacking the Pirates put on the Heels in Kenan Stadium last year, it is going to be hard for Carolina’s young defense to stop the Shane Carden to Justin Hardy combination, especially in Greenville. Ugh.
Sept 27: @ Clemson - LOSS (2-2, 0-1)
If ever there was a year to get Clemson on the schedule, it would be the year after losing essentially their entire offense. Gone are Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and that tall receiver who dropped a bunch of passes but also made some crazy catches. However, the defense is stacked. Clemson was fourth in the nation in sack percentage last year, sacking the opposing quarterback on 9.1 percent of dropbacks. Vic Beasley is going to be a problem.
Oct 4: Virginia Tech - WIN (3-2, 1-1)
This and the Miami game are easily the hardest games to pick on an annual basis. The Hokies are starting a transfer from Texas Tech at quarterback and their defense should be solid as usual. Still, I think the Heels are just as, if not more, talented. I will give the advantage to the home team. This should be a great game.
Oct 11: @ Notre Dame - LOSS (3-3, 1-1)
I should be allowed to put an asterisk by this game, because my prediction could very well change if the Irish are still holding out five players due to an academic scandal that allegedly involves tutors writing papers for players and possibly doing even more for the players. Wink wink. I’ve never heard of such a thing involving a college football program! Oh the horror! Have they no morals or control in South Bend? Grab your pitchforks! In all seriousness, Notre Dame’s top receiver and several important defensive players are among the suspended. If they are still out come this game, then maybe Carolina can pull it off. We shall see.
Oct 18: Georgia Tech - LOSS (3-4, 1-2)
I loathe Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson. Maybe it’s because the Heels never beat the Yellow Jackets, but it’s my opinion that no self-respecting legitimate power five conference team should run the triple option offense. It’s garbage to watch and I won’t stand for it! Tech beats the Heels for the sixth straight time and 15th time in 17 years. Go away, Paul Johnson! Also, cue folks calling for Fedora’s job after this game.
Oct 25: @ Virginia - WIN (4-4, 2-2)
Virginia confuses me. I thought they might have a breakout season last year and they did the opposite, proceeding to go 0-8 in ACC play. There is talent in Charlottesville, but Mike London can’t seem to mesh it together. Carolina has outscored the Cavaliers 81-23 in its past two visits to Charlottesville. That will continue.
Nov 1: @ Miami - WIN (5-4, 3-2)
This is my “upset” pick for the Heels this year even though I don’t think it’s that significant of one given the teams in the Coastal are relatively evenly matched. Still, I think Miami is going to have quarterback issues all season, and even though Duke Johnson might run for 200 yards in this game, I don’t see Miami scoring enough to keep up with the Heels. Also, Fedora needs to redeem himself after blowing the Miami game pretty much by himself last year.
Nov 15: Pittsburgh - WIN (6-4, 4-2)
Did you know Pittsburgh made a bowl game last year? Neither did I. What looked like a dangerous game on the schedule last year turned into a thrilling contest with Ryan Switzer returning two punts for scores to save Carolina from blowing a huge lead. Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd is a stud, but who will throw him the ball now that ninth-year college veteran Tom Savage is gone? I think he played for like six different teams in college.
Nov 20: @ Duke - WIN (7-4, 5-2)
This is the key game of the season. Everybody knows Duke has beaten the Heels two straight seasons and you must credit David Cutcliffe for doing a magnificent job. However, at some point things must trend back towards the mean. Duke was outscored by its opponents last season yet still won 10 games. That doesn’t make sense. Throw in the loss of All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown and tight end Braxton Deaver and I think it will be tough for Duke to repeat as Coastal champs. I still think they’re a bowl team, just not a 10-win team.
Nov 29: NC State - WIN (8-4, 6-2)
Happy Thanksgiving, Wolfpack. You lose. Six conference wins may very well be good enough to win the Coastal, earning the right to get crushed by Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. Even if it doesn’t, I would consider this season a success. I believe the schedule is relatively tough and it would put the Heels in position to win nine games for the first time since the late 1990’s.
Go Heels Go America