About a year ago at this time North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his players were trying to solve what went wrong amid a long, losing season in 2014. One year later the question surrounding the Tar Heels is this: What can they do for an encore after a breakout 2015 season?
UNC is No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll of the season, which was released on Tuesday. That’s the Tar Heels’ highest end-of-season ranking since 1997, when they finished sixth in the final AP poll. UNC’s hope, and it’s a realistic one, is that greater things are to come.
And here’s why, primarily: the majority of players responsible for the success this season will be back next season. Which isn’t to say the Tar Heels are without important personnel losses.
Marquise Williams, who grew into a tough leader at quarterback, has played his final game at UNC. So, too, has receiver Quinshad Davis, who set the school record for receptions, and Landon Turner, one of the best interior lineman in the country.
The defense, meanwhile, will certainly miss the leadership and production of Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer, two senior linebackers, and safety Sam Smiley will be missed in the secondary. Pretty much everyone else is back.
UNC still will have an enviable stable of skill position players on offense: Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan at running back; Mack Hollins, Bug Howard and Ryan Switzer at receiver. Mitch Trubisky, who has played well in limited opportunities, finally gets his chance to be the starter at quarterback.
On defense the secondary still figures to be a position of strength, what with the return of cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. And UNC’s most talented players at linebacker and on the defensive line will all be back, one year stronger and, the thought goes, wiser.
Nationally, UNC will have to make some believers out skeptics once again. The Tar Heels are No. 17 in ESPN’s “way too early” 2016 top 25. That seems a tad low, given what UNC returns. UNC is 20th in Fox Sports’ early top 25. In another “way too early” ranking UNC doesn’t even appear at all.
The way UNC ended the season, with a pair of losses against two of the best offensive teams in the country, have tempered some of the expectations for next season. They also called into question how much of the defensive improvement could be attributed to playing weaker offenses during the regular season.
There will be questions, too, entering next season about Trubisky, and whether the transition at quarterback will be as seamless as it appears it might be. Williams’ inconsistency at times frustrated coach Larry Fedora, but by the end of his senior season Williams’ strengths and weaknesses had long been established.
There are more unknowns with Trubisky. He has shown promise during his limited opportunities, but he hasn’t yet proven himself amid the long grind of a season, in which he will undoubtedly face moments that will test his resolve and mental strength.
The schedule provides another reason to question whether the Tar Heels can take another step forward in 2016. It’s possible, given the challenging schedule, for UNC to be a better team next season but finish with a worse record than it had this season.
UNC will begin the season against Georgia in Atlanta. The Tar Heels in their non-rivalry Atlantic Division crossover game also trade Wake Forest for Florida State. The game against the Seminoles is on the road in Tallahassee, Fla., where UNC won in 2010.
And so the schedule next season is more difficult – and arguably significantly more difficult – than it was this season. The defense, humbled in UNC’s final two games, will need to improve again.
Overall there are plenty of indications, too, that the 2015 season could just be the beginning and that greater things are ahead in 2016.