UNC storylines: What are reasonable expectations for the Tar Heels?

I thought my colleague and News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock put it perfectly recently when he wrote that North Carolina “is capable of winning 10 games – or losing eight” this season. And hasn’t that seemed the case for a while now?

There’s a lot to like about UNC entering the preseason. Ten starters return on offense. The entire offensive line is back. Marquise Williams, the fifth-year senior quarterback, is back. Gene Chizik has arrived to coach the defense, which has to be better than it was last season. (Right?)

But then there’s a lot to question, too. Like how good the offensive line can actually be. Yeah, everyone’s back, but that unit was a weak spot last season. And will Williams be more consistent? And can the defense, which was so, so bad last season, improve significantly under Chizik?

If things go right for UNC, and if the pieces all come together, 10 wins are realistic – especially given the schedule, which isn’t necessarily easy, exactly, but is manageable enough. But if things don’t come together, and if some of the same problems continue, then, well, it could get ugly again.

Don’t expect the Tar Heels to receive an abundance of love, as the kids say these days, in the ACC preseason media poll. Georgia Tech will probably be the Coastal Division favorite. Virginia Tech will be up there. Pitt, which returns 18 starters, could be up there. UNC is likely to be somewhere in the middle.

Maybe that’s a good thing. The past few years the Tar Heels entered the season with a little bit of hype. UNC entered last season, in fact, ranked in the top 25. This season, there aren’t really any expectations – at least not externally.

The Tar Heels aren’t going to be ranked in the top 25. Most don’t consider them to be a divisional favorite. The defensive debacle of a season ago is still fresh in the minds of the public, as is the embarrassing finish to the season – blowout losses against N.C. State and Rutgers.

And what followed that season-ending loss can’t be forgotten, either: players basically saying they were unprepared. Ryan Switzer, the wide receiver, describing locker room division and terrible team chemistry.

So can all that ailed UNC be fixed in one off season? Will the lapses that defined the offense almost as much as the big plays and all the points just disappear? Is it possible for Chizik to build the defense into something resembling competence?

The ceiling appears high for UNC, but the basement seems low, too. With a victory in the season-opener in Charlotte against South Carolina, a nine- or 10-win season would seem a lot more realistic. A defeat, though, and we could be looking at more of the same.

The Tar Heels haven’t won more than eight games since 1997. Their win totals have decreased in each of the past two seasons, from eight wins in coach Larry Fedora’s first season to seven in his second to six last season. Equally troubling, his team didn’t just lose last season – it lost big.

Blowouts against ECU and Clemson and Miami and N.C. State and Rutgers sucked the momentum from his program. Can UNC restore it this season? I don’t know. But I’m guessing the first game of the season could go a long way toward deciding the answer.

Win that game and UNC should be 4-0 on Oct. 3 when it plays at Georgia Tech, where the Tar Heels haven’t won since 1997. Beat South Carolina and somehow end that long streak of futility at Georgia Tech? Then UNC could have the makings of something special.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The pieces appear to be there for UNC, even if the high expectations aren’t. The Tar Heels have much to prove.