The first quarter is over for North Carolina. Three games have come and gone, and already the Tar Heels are one-fourth of their way through the regular season.
The Tar Heels hope it lasts several weeks longer. Before the season began, Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said he was preparing his team to play 15 games: 12 in the regular season, one in the ACC championship game and two more in the College Football Playoff.
The season-opening defeat against Georgia damaged UNC’s playoff hopes but that, Fedora said, was never part of his team’s goals, anyway. What are those goals? To win the Coastal Division, win the ACC and win the last game of the season.
Three games is a small sample size, especially given that one of them came on Saturday against James Madison. The Dukes’ offense, and especially their rushing offense, challenged UNC. But James Madison’s defense was no match for the Tar Heels, neither in talent nor depth nor anything else.
Now the schedule becomes significantly more difficult. UNC’s next four games – home against Pittsburgh, at Florida State, home against Virginia Tech, at Miami – will determine the course of the Tar Heels’ season.
It is the most difficult four-game stretch of the season, and the most critical to UNC’s hope of repeating as Coastal Division champions. Are the Tar Heels ready for it? Ask Fedora and he’ll likely say: “We’ll find out.” The past three games, though, provide an indication of UNC’s level of preparedness.
A quick look at five things we’ve learned to this point:
1. The defense has to get better, overall …
But you know this, probably. UNC ranks 94th nationally in total defense (426 yards per game) and 82nd nationally on a per-play basis (5.88 yards allowed). Pass defense was supposed to be a strength for this team, but it’s 47th nationally and, this is surprising – no interceptions yet for the Tar Heels.
2. … But the run defense really needs to improve.
You definitely knew this. The Tar Heels rank 106th nationally in rushing defense (226.7 yards per game) and they’re allowing 4.93 yards per rush, which ranks 105th nationally. That’s a problem, and there’s reason to doubt it gets better, because …
3. UNC isn’t at a point where it can overcome injuries.
That’s true at a lot of positions but especially on the defensive line, which has been ravaged by injuries. The injury woes on the defensive line have been a major problem for the Tar Heels, and it’s difficult to envision much improvement until they become healthy – or at least healthier.
4. Mitch Trubisky should be fine.
Trubisky has improved each game, which is to be expected given competition level has progressively decreased. Even so he appears to be settling in and gaining confidence and comfort. Even after an average debut against Georgia he’s among the top 15 nationally in quarterback rating.
5. The offense, overall, is about where it was expected to be.
The Tar Heels are averaging 470.7 yards per game, which ranks 36th nationally. A little low, given the expectations, but the per-game numbers reflect the defense’s inability at times to stop opposing drives. UNC is averaging 7.59 yards per play, which ranks sixth nationally.