CHAPEL HILL — Not that he’s the kind of person who would take it, but Larry Fedora gets a free pass this year.
Everything North Carolina has been through, with the year spent in limbo after Butch Davis was fired and before Fedora was hired, with the NCAA sanctions hanging overhead, with the dramatic changes to both the offense and the defense – it’s all been a lot to heap on one team. These players have been through a lot.
That’s not saying things won’t go smoothly for the Tar Heels, who are more than capable of winning a bunch of games. But that is saying it would be completely understandable if things didn’t go smoothly, and no one is going to hold it against Fedora this season if they don’t.
He’s changing an entire culture, and that’s not necessarily a process with instant results.
So what are realistic expectations for the Tar Heels? It’s a difficult question to answer, given all the variables in play.
Teams that make significant changes to their offensive system, from pro-style to spread like UNC, or option to pro-style, or vice versa, often struggle through an adjustment season. The Tar Heels have upped the degree of difficulty on that, not just changing their offense but their defense as well. The change really extends to their entire philosophy: Fedora’s high-octane, quick-paced scheme isn’t just pages in a playbook, it’s a mindset.
That alone would be enough to give pause; the inherent lack of motivation with no bowl to play for may be a factor at some point as well, although the Tar Heels already have taken steps to counteract that.
With no ACC title game and no bowl in the forecast, thanks to the NCAA sanctions, Fedora met with the senior class to set goals for the season. They set the bar high: win the mythical state title by beating Wake Forest, East Carolina, Duke and N.C. State, and go 12-0.
Despite all the upheaval, the Tar Heels might have the talent to pull that off. They have an experienced quarterback, a talented running back, a veteran offensive line and two productive senior wide receivers. While not as intimidating on defense as in recent years, there are still a handful of impact players on that side of the ball, most notably linebacker Kevin Reddick.
If the new schemes click quickly, North Carolina might be in a position to surprise people. The toughest games are at home – Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Georgia Tech – and the Tar Heels avoid Florida State and Clemson in the other division. It’s no leap of logic to see 9-3, maybe even 10-2.
By the same token, things could just as easily go the other direction. If the Tar Heels were to struggle in their first two road games, at Wake Forest and at Louisville, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that North Carolina could go into the meat of its schedule with a 3-2 record – and the meat would be tough for a team lacking confidence: Virginia Tech, at Miami, at Duke, N.C. State, Georgia Tech, at Virginia.
The point here isn’t that the Tar Heels will end up 4-8 or 5-9, just that it could happen. And if it does, it shouldn’t be a reflection on where the program is headed under Fedora – particularly if he takes the opportunity, should things start going the wrong direction, to start throwing some future contributors into the fire.
Fedora might be the last person who would ever want a free pass, but it’s there if he needs it. Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t.
DeCock: email@example.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947