Things are definitely looking up in Chapel Hill. Larry Fedora enters his fifth year as the Tarheels head coach, and after giving Clemson a test in the A.C.C. title game, optimism for Carolina football is at an all time high. With seven starters returning on offense, and seven coming back on defense, the Tarheels are poised to make a major statement. The schedule itself may present the most problems for the Tarheels. The opening weekend of the season, Carolina plays in Atlanta against Georgia. The A.C.C. in general hasn't done well in Atlanta openers. The A.C.C. last won in Atlanta on opening weekend in 2012. Clemson upended Auburn in that affair, and the S.E.C. has had its run of the place since then. It will be interesting to see the Kirby Smart edition of the Georgia Bulldogs make its debut against the high octane offense of North Carolina.
Marquise Williams was the heart and soul of the Tarheels last season, and Fedora will have a tough job replacing his output. Look for an interesting battle this fall between junior Mitch Trubisky and sophomore Caleb Henderson. Whoever emerges as the starter will have a huge task in replicating Williams' 2015 performance. The winning QB will have the benefit of handing the ball off to junior Elijah Hood. Hood ran for a mind boggling 1,463 yards last season, and looks to put his name into the Heisman mix. Hood was a first team A.C.C. performer last season, and should have another monster year. Hood will be spelled by T.J. Logan, and as Virginia Tech can attest, Fedora loves running the ball.
Defensively, the Tarheels have nowhere to go but up. They allowed Baylor to rush for an all-time bowl game record 645 yards in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Some would argue that bowl game stats don't count, but that number makes me cringe every time I see it. DT Jalen Dalton will have a big year. At 6'6" 280, the sophomore should provide the middle clogging ability to stop other teams' rushing attacks. The secondary has a ton of potential, but after finishing 23rd against the pass nationally last year, the Heels have raised the bar.
The schedule for the Tarheels is indeed brutal. After the opener vs. Georgia, the Tarheels travel to Illinois for only the fourth meeting between the two clubs. Illinois isn't Notre Dame, but it's still a Big10 road opponent. The most brutal part of the schedule is a three week stretch in October. The Tarheels face Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Miami in succession. If the Tarheels can possibly end up 2-1 after THAT stretch, then look out. I have the Tarheels at 9-3, with losses at Florida State, Miami, then a coin flip between Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. I really like the way Pitt matches up with Carolina. I think the 2016 edition of North Carolina might be better, but the schedule requires a higher degree of difficulty, and may up with a worse final record.