UNC at a glance
2014: 6-7 overall, 4-4 ACC.
Bowl result: Lost 40-21 against Rutgers in Quick Lane Bowl.
Coach (record): Larry Fedora (55-36 overall, 21-17 in three seasons at UNC).
Returning starters: Offense (10), defense (7), special teams (2).
The offense, which averaged about 430 yards per game last season, returns pretty much intact. UNC has the advantage of having a fifth-year senior quarterback in Marquise Williams and the most experienced offensive line in the ACC. And the defense, which was terrible last season, has to be better. Right?
Though pretty much everyone is back on offense, inconsistency was a problem, and the running game was virtually nonexistent at times. That has to change. The defense is a huge question. It can’t be worse, but how much improvement is realistic?
The defensive coaching staff is led by coordinator Gene Chizik. His arrival was celebrated in Chapel Hill and with good reason given his resume, which includes two national championships (as head coach at Auburn, co-defensive coordinator at Texas). He brings in a more traditional 4-3 scheme and, above all, wants his defense to be known for its physicality.
The position coaches under Chizik are new, too, and overall UNC’s defensive staff is younger and more energetic than it has been in recent years. At the least, this defensive staff shouldn’t lose the players’ confidence the way the previous staff did.
Marquise Williams, entering his second season as the full-time starter at quarterback, says he is as healthy as he has been since high school. His improved health should translate into greater consistency and production.
Best case scenario
UNC hasn’t won more than eight games since 1997, but the Tar Heels are capable of ending that drought and winning nine or 10 games this season. Their success will hinge on a few factors above all:
The defense has to improve significantly. If UNC is even average defensively – which would constitute a meaningful improvement – it should be in a position to outscore most opponents. Second, the offensive line has to play to its potential and give its talented backfield a chance.
Finally, Williams needs to be more consistent and avoid slow starts. If all of that happens – and especially if the defense is a lot better – then a breakthrough is possible in coach Larry Fedora’s fourth season.
The defense was so bad last season that it’s almost impossible for it to be any worse. But what if it’s just not all that much better? The personnel is essentially the same, after all, and there figures to be some growing pains in the first year in a new system.
If the improvement is only modest, and if the offensive line doesn’t come together the way Fedora envisions, and if Williams continues to follow his good quarters, or games, with mediocre ones, then the Tar Heels will suffer from the same problems that often derailed them last season.
Blowout losses last season against East Carolina, Miami, N.C. State and Rutgers proved how quickly things can spiral out of control for UNC when all is not well. A 5-7 season figures to be about as bad as it can get, and it’s not out of the question if a lot of factors go south all at once.
Some close to the program believe this is the year that Fedora has been building toward. The talent and experience is there on offense. Defensively, Fedora probably made the best hire he could have made in Chizik. Fedora entered last season saying “it’s time,” but he might have been better off waiting a year. If the time to take a step forward isn’t now, it will be fair to question when it will be.
Sept. 3: vs. South Carolina (Charlotte)
Sept. 12: vs. N.C. A&T
Sept. 19: vs. Illinois
Sept. 26: vs. Delaware
Oct. 3: at Georgia Tech
Oct. 17: vs. Wake Forest
Oct. 24: vs. Virginia
Oct. 29: at Pittsburgh
Nov. 7: vs. Duke
Nov. 14: vs. Miami
Nov. 21: at Virginia Tech
Nov. 28: at N.C. State
It’s not easy. The season-opener is difficult, and the road games in the ACC – at Georgia Tech (where UNC hasn’t won since 1997), at Pitt on a Thursday night, at Virginia Tech, at N.C. State – are all formidable. Somewhere along the way, the college football public decided that UNC had a fairly easy schedule, but that’s not exactly the reality – especially on the back end.
Predicted finish: 7-5