Record: 8-4 overall, 5-3 ACC (ineligible for bowl appearance).
Who's back: QB Bryn Renner (28 TDs, 3,356 yards), WR Quinshad Davis (61 catches, 776 yards), TE Eric Ebron (40 catches, 625 yards), DE Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 15.5 for loss), S Tre Boston (86 tackles, 4 interceptions).
Whos gone: RB Gio Bernard (1,981 all-purpose yards, 19 TDs), LG Jonathan Cooper (consensus All-American), WR Erik Highsmith (54 catches, 587 yards), DT Sylvester Williams (42 tackles,13.5 for loss), LB Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 18.5 for loss).
Best-case scenario: The defense shows drastic improvement from a season ago, despite losing its two best players, and the offense successfully overcomes the loss of Bernard and three starting offensive linemen. Do those things and a 10-win season, and Coastal Division championship, isnt out of the question.
Worst-case scenario: The offensive line takes a significant step backward, which has a negative trickle-down effect on Renner and the rest of the offense. The defensive issues from last season blown coverages, missed assignments carry over to this season and UNC has to fight to win six or seven games.
Bottom line: The Tar Heels should have a chance to win the Coastal Division and, if defensive improvement were a guarantee, they might have entered the season as the favorite. The offense should pick up where it left off in a record-setting year last season, but the defense has to avoid the fourth-quarter meltdowns that cost UNC two games last season.
3 key games
at South Carolina (Thursday): You couldnt ask for a better stage. The Tar Heels begin the season on the road against a top-10 opponent in the first nationally televised game of the season. UNC has nothing to lose and everything to gain. A victory at South Carolina would be a program-changer for the Tar Heels.
at Georgia Tech (Sept. 21): UNC played a debacle of a defensive game against Georgia Tech last season, when the Yellow Jackets scored 68 points. How the Tar Heels defense fares this time against Georgia Techs option will say a lot about the direction, and potential, of UNCs defense.
Miami (Oct. 17): A rare Thursday night home game for UNC and one thats likely to carry significant implications in the Coastal Division. After road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech (Oct. 5), UNC will know where it stands after playing Miami, which enters the season as the favorite in the Coastal.
The offense: UNC ranked 14th nationally (485.6 yards per game) in total offense last season, and coach Larry Fedora is optimistic the Tar Heels can be even better. Its not unrealistic. Renner is back and has a better command of the spread. There are plenty of capable receiving targets led by tight end Ebron and receiver Davis and four running backs. The question is the offensive line.
The defense: The Tar Heels crumbled at times last season, especially late in the year amid injuries. UNC lost its two most productive defensive players, but seven starters are back, including linemen Martin and Tim Jackson, and basically the entire secondary. Fedora and his staff insist improvement will come because guys better understand the 4-2-5 scheme. UNC must stay healthy because defensive depth is especially thin.
Key player: DE Kareem Martin
Renner and the offense should be fine; there are enough playmakers on that side. Martin, the senior defensive end, has to meet expectations for the defense to reach its potential. He only had 4.5 sacks last season, but his 15.5 tackles for loss prove he can be disruptive behind the line of scrimmage. Hes seeking double-digit sacks.
Key stat: 61.9 percent
That was UNCs touchdown efficiency in the red zone.
As good as UNCs offense was last season, it wasnt all that good at converting trips inside an opponents 20-yard line into touchdowns. UNC scored touchdowns on 39 of its 63 (61.9 percent) red zone opportunities, which ranked 58th nationally. The inability to consistently score touchdowns in the red zone probably cost the Tar Heels at least two games last season. Increasing red zone efficiency has been a focal point.
|Thursday||at South Carolina||6 p.m.|
|Sept. 7||Middle Tenn. St.||12:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 21||at Georgia Tech||TBA|
|Sept. 28||East Carolina||TBA|
|Oct. 5||at Virginia Tech||TBA|
|Oct. 26||Boston College||TBA|
|Nov. 2||at N.C State||TBA|
|Nov. 16||at Pittsburgh||TBA|
|Nov. 23||Old Dominion||TBA|