It’s starting to feel like there’s a lot hanging in the balance at North Carolina this football season. From the shoe-selling suspensions to Larry Fedora’s outburst to the lingering specter of last year’s injury-plagued 3-9 season, this fall wasn’t supposed to be a statement about the state of the program.
Now, it unavoidably is.
North Carolina is still not far removed from an appearance in the ACC title game and an onside kick that wasn’t, but like Duke a season ago, it is incumbent upon the Tar Heels to prove that their miserable season last fall was merely a fluke, a blip, a rounding error -- and not the beginning of a downward trend, a dynamic complicated by developments off the field.
The timing of the suspensions of 13 players, including presumed starting quarterback Chazz Surratt, for as many as four games was inauspicious at the least: It’s a brutal opening stretch that starts with a cross-country trip to play California, a return to North Carolina to play at East Carolina – the environment aside, if the Pirates are going to demonstrate progress under Scottie Montgomery, it should start to show now, in Year 3 – and then home games against a national champion, Central Florida, and ACC opponent Pittsburgh.
There’s not an easy one in the bunch, and it doesn’t get any easier after that, with trips to Miami and Syracuse sandwiched around a home game against Virginia Tech. North Carolina could just as easily start 1-6 as 5-2. It won’t take long to get a determination on which way the program is headed.
And that is far from a foregone conclusion. The Tar Heels have an elite playmaker in Anthony Ratliff-Williams and the flipside of having so many players injured last year is that there are a whole mess of players with game experience who wouldn’t have it otherwise. Which way this goes is anyone’s guess, but it will speak volumes about the future direction of the program.
The prediction: 5-7. Expect some progress, but it feels like there’s too much on the minus side of the ledger for the Tar Heels to get all the way back to bowl eligibility.
Wins: at East Carolina, Pittsburgh, at Virginia, Georgia Tech, Western Carolina.
Losses: at California, Central Florida, at Miami, Virginia Tech, at Syracuse, at Duke, N.C. State.