North Carolina's 2017 football schedule has been released. It is:
Sept. 2 vs. California
Sept. 9 vs. Louisville
Sept. 16 at Old Dominion
Sept. 23 vs. Duke
Sept. 30 at Georgia Tech
Oct. 7 vs. Notre Dame
Oct. 14 vs. Virginia
Oct. 21 at Virginia Tech
Oct. 28 vs. Miami
Nov. 9 at Pittsburgh (Thursday)
Nov. 18 vs. Western Carolina
Nov. 25 at N.C. State
Some thoughts and analysis:
-There's an argument to be made that this is a slightly easier schedule than the one UNC played last season. There's also an argument to be made that the schedule is more difficult.
Here's how: The Tar Heels played seven fixed games every season – the six against the other teams in the Coastal Division, and the annual rivalry game against N.C. State. Those seven games might well be more difficult next season than they were last.
Virginia Tech, in its second season under a new coaching staff, should be better. Same argument for Miami, though both teams (like the Tar Heels) lose their starting quarterbacks. Still, neither lack talent. N.C. State, which beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last November, returns the majority of its most important players and the Wolfpack should be better, too.
The argument for the schedule becoming a tad easier: UNC swaps a not-so neutral site game in Atlanta against Georgia, which finished 8-5, with a home game against Cal, which finished 5-7. Notre Dame, clearly in rebuilding mode after a 4-8 season, visits Chapel Hill. That game, on paper, doesn't look much more difficult than what UNC faced at Illinois last fall.
And the Tar Heels trade an Atlantic Division crossover game against Florida State for one against Louisville. Not much difference there, and the Cardinals do return Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, but at least this is a home game (though winning at Florida State was probably the highlight of last season for UNC).
The other two non-conference games are against Old Dominion, a Conference USA team that went 10-3 last season, and Western Carolina, an FCS team. The combined record of the 10 FBS teams UNC played last season: 70-58. The combined records of the 11 FBS teams UNC will play next season: 77-63.
--Given what the Tar Heels lose on offense – their starting quarterback, top two running backs, best three receivers and two best offensive linemen – next season is a rebuilding year. And this is a schedule that is ideally constructed for a team that is rebuilding. Five of the first seven games are at home, which makes the first half of the season more manageable than it might have been otherwise.
--The other side of that, though, is that the schedule is back-loaded, with the most difficult challenges coming later in the season. The most difficult three-game stretch begins on Oct. 21, with a road game at Virginia Tech.
A home game against Miami follows, and then UNC is back on the road again the next week, at Pittsburgh. And this is all before the Tar Heels ever have an off week. In some ways, this schedule is the mirror reverse of the Tar Heels' 2016 schedule, which included the most difficult games (at least on paper) during the first half of the season.