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Cupcakes and clashes: Ranking UNC’s football schedule

N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton (10) beats UNC defensive end Junior Gnonkonde (44), left, and defensive tackle Ethan Farmer (96) on a four-yard touchdown run during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014.
N.C. State running back Shadrach Thornton (10) beats UNC defensive end Junior Gnonkonde (44), left, and defensive tackle Ethan Farmer (96) on a four-yard touchdown run during the first half of the Wolfpack's game against North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

It won’t be long now. North Carolina begins the season next Thursday in Charlotte against South Carolina.

Big game. Important game. Difficult game for the Tar Heels, who opened the 2013 season with a lopsided loss at South Carolina – a defeat that kind of set the tone for a disappointing first half of the season.

This game against South Carolina might just be UNC’s most important for that reason: A victory makes a special season – a 9-win-or-better kind of season – a lot more realistic. But is the game against the Gamecocks UNC’s most difficult?

Here’s how I see the Tar Heels’ schedule, from their least difficult game to the most:

12. N.C. A&T

When: Sept. 12

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: UNC plays two FCS teams, and N.C. A&T, despite its 9-3 finish last season, is less formidable than Delaware, which finished 6-6 last season. Neither game should be close, but this one in particular should be … less close.

11. Delaware

When: Sept. 26

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: The last time Delaware played an ACC team, it did not go well for the Blue Hens. They opened last season with a 62-0 loss against Pittsburgh. Still, Delaware is a solid enough FCS program. Not great. Not terrible. Decent enough. Which means this shouldn’t be close.

10. Wake Forest

When: Oct. 17

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: I still have a hard time believing UNC lost at Wake Forest in 2012. This will be the first game between these teams since. The Demon Deacons will be better than they were last year (3-9, 1-7 ACC), but that’s not saying much.

9. Illinois

When: Sept. 19

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: Lots of similarities between UNC and Illinois. Both finished 6-7 last season. Both lost on the day after Christmas in bowl games that probably shouldn’t exist. Both return most of their best players. This has the feel of a dangerous game for UNC. It’s the kind of game it has lost in recent years.

8. Virginia

When: Oct. 24

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: Virginia is kind of a backward, and worse, version of UNC: some good defenses under coach Mike London but some truly heinous offensive teams. Virginia hasn’t won in Chapel Hill since 2009 and if it breaks that brief losing streak this season it could signal major trouble for the Tar Heels.

7. Miami

When: Nov. 14

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: UNC probably shouldn’t lose any game to this point in these rankings. From here, though, the schedule becomes significantly more difficult, and every game is a tossup. How difficult this game is probably depends on which Miami team shows up.

6. Duke

When: Nov. 7

Where: Kenan Stadium

Rationale: Last time the Blue Devils won back-to-back games in Kenan Stadium? 1987 and ’89, under Steve Spurrier. This could loom large, as they say, in the Coastal Division race.

5. at Pittsburgh

When: Oct. 29

Where: Heinz Field

Rationale: This game would probably rank lower, but it’s a Thursday night road game, and Thursday night road games seem to be more difficult than they should be. UNC surrendered more than 300 yards rushing against Pitt last season – one of five times that happened – but the Tar Heels still won.

4. at Virginia Tech

When: Nov. 21

Where: Lane Stadium

Rationale: Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer seems to be going through the same kind of lull that Florida State did late in Bobby Bowden’s tenure. Still, Lane Stadium, where UNC has won just once since the Hokies joined the ACC, remains as difficult a place to play as there is in the conference.

3. South Carolina

When: Sept. 3

Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte

Rationale: Season openers are always important, but this one can’t be overstated for UNC. It might be the most important game on the schedule, and it’s plenty winnable, too, given South Carolina is also in rebuilding mode on defense.

2. at N.C. State

When: Nov. 28

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium

Rationale: Put N.C. State in the Coastal Division and the Wolfpack likely would have been a trendy pick to win it. Or at least to finish second behind Georgia Tech. This would have been a difficult game regardless, but what N.C. State did in Kenan Stadium last season magnifies the significance.

1. at Georgia Tech

When: Oct. 3

Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium

Rationale: UNC hasn’t won at Georgia Tech since 1997, which means that basically no one playing college football nowadays has any memory of UNC’s last victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Break that streak this season and suddenly a Coastal Division championship seems feasible.

So there you have it. Two final thoughts:

The schedule is significantly more difficult in the second half of the season. Which makes the South Carolina and Georgia Tech games all the more important.

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