And then it was game week, at last. North Carolina begins the college football season on Saturday against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome. It is, perhaps, the most important season-opener in school history (a topic we'll discuss this week).
One countdown is nearing its end – the one leading into the start of the season. And now the marathon, as the old cliché goes, begins. With that in mind, here are 50 things I – as your trusted UNC beat reporter – am looking forward to chronicling/seeing/experiencing this season.
Let's get to it:
1. The scene in Atlanta surrounding UNC vs. Georgia.
The Tar Heels and Bulldogs aren't the only thing going on in Atlanta this weekend. They might not even have top billing. No, that might just go to Dragon Con. What is Dragon Con? A huge colorful/culture/comic convention with thousands of people in costume. I can't wait to see this. No, really. I can't.
2. UNC vs. Georgia in the Georgia Dome.
Gets no bigger than this. Well, maybe it does (see Alabama vs. USC, for instance). But for the Tar Heels it really does get no bigger: a nationally-televised game, in a sure-to-be raucous environment, against an SEC foe with more than a bit of name prestige. Biggest opener in school history for UNC?
3. At last, it's Trubisky Time.
When was the last time there was this much anticipation over a new starting quarterback at UNC? When Fedora became head coach he made recruiting Trubisky a top priority. Trubisky has had to wait three years but it's finally here – his chance to lead the offense as the unquestioned starter.
4. The Tar Heels' first offensive play will be … ?
The Tar Heels have had nine months to plan for their first offensive play against Georgia. Do they go for something flashy, something similar to how they began the Duke game last season? Or do they keep it simple? UNC will have no better regular-season stage to make a statement.
5. The effect of Mack Hollins' absence in the first half against Georgia.
Hollins, the senior receiver, has to sit out the first half against Georgia because of the targeting penalty he committed in the bowl game last year. That means UNC will be without its best deep threat, and its special teams captain. Who fills the void for those two quarters until Hollins returns and does it matter?
6. Following the development of the run defense.
It's the single most important question facing UNC at the start of the season: Will the run defense be better? When last we saw the Tar Heels they were in the process of allowing 645 yards rushing against Baylor. Week 1 against Georgia will provide a strong indication of where things stand.
7. How effective Nick Chubb is in the opener.
Speaking of the run defense, and Georgia, UNC will go against one of the best running backs in the country in Week 1. At least, Nick Chubb was among the best before a serious knee injury. All indications are that Chubb will play on Saturday. How effective will he be?
8. The Great Beard Watch of 2016.
You come to me for insight and reporting on only the most important of topics, and so it is with this one. Does Larry Fedora keep the beard? Does he let it grow with a Week 1 victory against the Bulldogs? Does he shave it with a loss? Is this now a permanent part of the identity, like Red Bull?
9. A new dateline: CHAMPAIGN, Ill.
One of these days I'm going to sit down and count the number of cities and towns where I've filed stories. I know I've never been to Champaign, Ill., though, and so the dateline collection geek that's inside of me, and most journalists, is rejoicing at UNC's trip to Illinois on Sept. 10.
10. Ryan Switzer and the punt return record.
Switzer, the senior receiver, needs to return two punts for touchdowns to set a new NCAA record. He's tied for second in NCAA history, with seven returns for touchdowns, though if you ask him he already has the record given penalties wiped away two touchdown returns.
11. The offense seeks to make history. Again.
Last season the Tar Heels the set school records in yards (486.9) and points (40.7) per game. Fedora has gone on record with his belief that the offense could be even more prolific this season. With all that returns it's not that bold of a proclamation.
12. The defense in its second season under Gene Chizik.
The run defense has received the most attention, and rightfully so, throughout the preseason. In Chizik's second season as defensive coordinator, though, the entire defense is supposed to become more creative, more malleable, more complex. How will these differences present themselves?
13. The mystery of who's calling the plays on offense.
It's going to be a team effort for the Tar Heels this season. Chris Kapilovic, the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, will have a role. So will Keith Heckendorf, the quarterbacks coach. And Fedora. But to whom will fans direct their ire when something goes wrong?
14. Chris Kapilovic the offensive coordinator.
Kapilovic is Fedora's longest-tenured assistant – and the only assistant who has worked beside Fedora for the duration of his head coaching career. Kapilovic is also great to us media types – always patient and willing to explain, which in turn should lead to better insight for UNC fans.
15. Tom Sheldon, the 27-year-old freshman punter from Australia.
No word yet on whether Sheldon has won the punting job but Fedora says he has been impressed, mate. (No, really – he did say “mate.”) Sheldon, a late addition to the roster, joins a line of college punters with roots in Australian rules football.
16. Mack Hollins in the deep passing game.
Hollins gained 745 yards on only 30 catches a season ago – a staggering average of 24.8 yards per catch. He led the nation in that category and the Tar Heels' long passing game could be even more prolific this season than it was last.
17. The race to Charlotte and the pursuit of a Coastal Division repeat.
UNC last season played in the ACC Championship game for the first time. A repeat appearance is well within reach for the Tar Heels, who enter the season as the favorites in the Coastal. The home game against Pitt and Miami on the road will be especially critical to UNC's hopes.
18. James Connor comes to Kenan Stadium.
You know Connor's story. A knee injury led to a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, which led to him missing all of last season. Now he's back, cancer free, and his return is among the best college football stories in years. Pittsburgh and Connor, who led the ACC in rushing in 2014, come to UNC on Sept. 24.
19. The Trubisky-to-(insert player name here) connection.
It's a safe and easy assumption that Trubisky and Switzer will form a quick connection. They're roommates and close friends, after all. Trubisky, though, has some options. Bug Howard and Hollins will challenge Switzer for the role of Trubisky's go-to receiver.
20. Brandon Fritts' role in the passing game.
Fritts, a redshirt sophomore, had some sneaky good moments a season ago, and he could be in line for a much larger role this season. He and Trubisky were high school teammates in Mentor, Ohio, where Fritts and Trubisky connected for 17 touchdowns during Fritts' junior season.
21. A trip to Boss Oyster before UNC's game at Florida State.
Here's my travel plan for UNC at Florida State on Oct. 1: Fly to Tallahassee on the Friday afternoon before game. Land, rent a car and drive about 90 minutes straight to Boss Oyster, which is right on the Apalachicola Bay and serves the best oysters anywhere. Nice little Friday afternoon.
22. A return to Doak Campbell Stadium.
Fun fact about your favorite UNC beat reporter: I was once your favorite Florida State beat reporter. From 2007 through 2010 I covered Florida State for the Orlando Sentinel. Haven't been back to Doak Campbell since FSU ended its misery against Florida in 2010. Things have changed a bit since.
23. The test that awaits at Florida State.
The Seminoles have national championship aspirations, and with good reason. And so this, like the Georgia game, is another measuring stick for UNC, which played Clemson tough in the ACC title game. The last time UNC played in Tallahassee, in 2010, it left with a 37-35 victory.
24. The presumed emergence of Jalen Dalton.
Dalton represents one of UNC's most important recruiting victories of Fedora's tenure. Coaches thought he might redshirt last season, when he arrived as a defensive end, but he proved them wrong. Now, after adding 40 pounds and moving to defensive tackle, he seems poised for a breakout sophomore season.
25. Naz Jones – the Made Man.
One of the coolest stories on the team is the mentoring program that Naz Jones, the junior defensive tackle, founded last spring. He'll be active with it this fall while also playing a leading role on the Tar Heels' defensive line, where the plan is for him to start alongside Dalton.
26. Mikey Bart's quest to take another step at defensive end.
Don't look now but Bart is one of the ACC's most proven returning pass rushers. The senior defensive end finished last season with nine quarterback hurries and 6.5 sacks. He's overshadowed by some of his teammates but Bart, as he did last year, will play a vital role for the Tar Heels.
27. Playing Virginia Tech without Frank Beamer on the visiting sideline.
The last time UNC played against Virginia Tech without Beamer around was in 1946 – which was also the last time the Tar Heels and Hokies played until 1997. The Tar Heels sent Beamer out in defeat in his home finale last year. The Hokies, under first-year coach Justin Fuente, aren't likely to have forgotten.
28. New faces at linebacker.
The rest of the UNC media corps and I will miss Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer, the two departed senior linebackers who were the unofficial spokesmen of the defense in recent seasons. Their departure leaves questions that Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith will try to answer, literally and figuratively.
29. Cole Holcomb completes a journey from walk-on to starter.
Holcomb, like Hollins and like Schoettmer before him, arrived at UNC as a walk-on. And like those two, Holcomb has worked his way up and into a starting position. Originally he was going to walk on at Duke, he said. That fell through and now he'll be a starting linebacker for the Tar Heels.
30. Whether the secondary lives up to the hype.
While Tar Heels enter the season with questions surrounding the run defense, there are no such doubts about the pass defense. It's supposed to be a team strength and with good reason, what with Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart at cornerback. Will the defensive backfield be as good as advertised?
31. The new faces on opposite sidelines.
More than half the teams on UNC's schedule – Georgia, Illinois, James Madison, Virginia Tech, Miami, Virginia and The Citadel – have new head coaches this season. Which could make preparing for those teams more of a challenge than it would have been otherwise.
32. Miami's less-dumpy stadium situation.
No sugar-coating here. I've always found trips to Miami's stadium – now on something like its 10th corporate name – highly depressing. All the concrete. The ugliness. The empty seats. They renovated this thing, finally. That's the good. The bad: Miami still needs a better set up.
33. UNC at Miami for, just maybe, the Coastal Division.
The past two games between these teams have been complete blowouts in favor of the home team. They're due for a competitive game, and this one figures to be. A UNC victory on Oct. 15 would go a long, long way toward cementing the Tar Heels' hopes to repeat as Coastal champions.
34. Ryan Switzer's final college season, overall.
The pursuit of the career record for punt returns for touchdowns isn't the only interesting thing approaching Switzer's final college season. He'll also be catching passes from his roommate and one of his closest friends. Trubisky and Switzer have been waiting for this time to arrive.
35. Elijah Hood's junior season.
Maybe I'm biased because I see him play week in and week out but I'm not sure Hood receives the attention he deserves. Not that he really cares about it. But on teams where he'd be the sole offensive focal point he might be a Heisman contender. He might become one this season at UNC, anyway.
36. T.J. Logan's senior season.
Logan would probably start at a lot of places, including several schools in the ACC. At UNC he plays behind Hood, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Logan, himself a top prospect when he arrived at UNC, has never complained and creates one half of what's arguably the ACC's top backfield duo.
37. The emergence of freshmen who could set a foundation for the future.
Every coaching staff in the country wants to see which freshmen make the most of early opportunities. At UNC, several on defense will have a chance to contribute. Defensive backs Patrice Rene and Myles Dorn, and linebacker Jonathan Smith are a few that warrant some close attention.
38. New life at Virginia.
The Oldest Rivalry in the South is UNC vs. Virginia. After much long-sustained futility in this series, the Tar Heels have won six in a row. The arrival of Bronco Mendenhall should give Virginia some life – and perhaps help reinvigorate a rivalry gone stale. It resumes on Oct. 22 at Virginia.
39. The overall Charlottesville experience.
One of these days I'll get around to listing the ACC's best places to see a game in the fall. When I do, Charlottesville will rank highly. Not so much because of the atmosphere inside Scott Stadium, but all that surrounds it. It's one of the ACC's most picturesque places to visit any time, but especially in football season.
40. Better team, better start times?
For years mediocre UNC teams received mediocre play on television: occasional primetime games mixed with a predictable cycle of noon kickoffs. UNC won 11 games last season and expectations are high this season. It should translate into more desirable game times and better play on TV.
41. Fan support at Kenan Stadium and the development of a football culture at UNC.
Fedora and his players did their part last season, injecting an energy into UNC football that hadn't existed in nearly 20 years. Will the fans do their part this season? It's not the most attractive home schedule but you can be assured Fedora will be paying close attention to the support – or lack thereof.
42. UNC vs. Georgia Tech: Part V
Since Fedora became UNC's head coach in 2012, the Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets have played some memorable games – all but the first one decided by eight points or fewer. UNC came back from a 21-0 deficit to win in Atlanta last year. Weird things just seem to happen in this series, which resumes Nov. 5.
43. How the offensive line develops, what with all that experience.
Right tackle Jon Heck has 38 career starts. Left guard Caleb Peterson 37. Center Lucas Crowley 27. Left tackle Bentley Spain 10. UNC will be breaking in a new right guard but with four starters back the line is supposed to be among the ACC’s best.
44. What Nick Weiler does for an encore.
Just think: two years ago UNC had one of the worst placekicking situations in the nation. Weiler was on that team and last season became one of the most consistent kickers in the ACC. He made 20 of his 23 field goal attempts and all 67 of his extra point attempts. Now all he has to do is repeat, or surpass, that performance.
45. The triple-option – Take 2:
The Citadel, an FCS team, managed to do something that UNC couldn't last year: It beat South Carolina. The Citadel brings its triple-option offense to UNC on Nov. 19. Which means that for the second time in three weeks (first against Georgia Tech), UNC will see triple (option).
46. The revamped Wallace Wade Stadium.
Gone are the days of covering a Duke football game in a rigged-up press box temporarily constructed in a doctor's office. I was always wary of those narrow platforms they put us on over there but no more: a real press box is among the many upgrades at Duke's new-look venerable stadium.
47. Whether the Tar Heels find themselves in the College Football Playoff hunt again.
It'd be possible, say, with an opening-game victory against Georgia and a close loss at Florida State and no other blemishes on the record. But then the two FCS teams on the schedule come into play. Would a one-loss UNC team have a shot?
48. Last call for seniors.
This will be the final season at UNC for 15 seniors, including: Bart, Crowley, Heck, Hollins, Howard, Lawrence, Logan, Switzer and Weiler. This group comprised Fedora's first real recruiting class at UNC – the first one he had a full recruiting cycle to put together, that is. Another class that has outlasted all the drama.
49. UNC vs. N.C. State on Black Friday.
Respect to whomever it was who made the ultimate decision to put this game on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It adds a little more pizazz to a game that doesn't come close to registering nationally. Will the Tar Heels and Wolfpack deliver a worthy performance?
50. The pursuit of accomplishing what no UNC team has since 1997.
It has been that long since UNC began and ended a season in the national rankings. Nineteen years. Since, the Tar Heels have entered the season ranked and finished it unranked four times: 1998, 2009, 2010 and 2014. It’d probably be a surprise, and disappointment, if that trend doesn’t end this year.
So there you have it. The 50 things I’m most looking forward to. I’ll see you at Boss Oyster.