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Florida State, Georgia, Miami: UNC’s most difficult game is ... ?

North Carolina’s Jeremiah Clarke (49) sacks Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) during their game in November 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina’s Jeremiah Clarke (49) sacks Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya (15) during their game in November 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Here’s what you should know about the Tar Heels’ football schedule right away: It’s more difficult than it was last year – so much so that UNC could be better this season but finish with a worse record. That’s what happens when you trade Wake Forest for Florida State, and South Carolina for Georgia.

And, oh yes, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech all appear to have upgraded their coaching staffs with the hiring of new head coaches. So those three teams, all of them among UNC’s Coastal Division rivals, could be better than they’ve been (although it will take a while for those staffs to recruit).

But let’s get to it: A quick ranking of UNC’s schedule, from easiest game to most difficult:

12. James Madison, Sept. 17

One of UNC’s two FCS opponents, the Dukes went 9-3 last year – including a victory at SMU – and they added Wakefield’s Connor Mitch, the former South Carolina quarterback, as a transfer. Still, if UNC doesn’t win this game by at least three touchdowns people will be asking how and why.

11. The Citadel, Nov. 19

The main thing to know about The Citadel: It runs the triple option and runs it well. It averaged 346.9 rushing yards per game last season. Given UNC’s shaky (or worse) run defense a season ago, this is the more difficult of the Tar Heels’ FCS games.

10. at Illinois, Sept. 10

The Illini were 4-7 last season and then lost more than half of its starters on both offense and defense before Illinois hired Lovie Smith to try to resurrect a program that has lost its way. If it happens, it’s not likely to happen this season.

9. at Virginia, Oct. 22

Goodbye, Mike London and hello, Bronco Mendenhall. The cupboard isn’t bare, at least. Recruiting was never London’s problem. But can Mendenhall change the culture in his first season? And does Virginia have an answer at quarterback? And why is that a question, it seems, every year?

8. N.C. State

Seems a long time ago that N.C. State came into Kenan Stadium and cleared it by the fourth quarter amid a victory that had coach Dave Doeren cracking on the belt he once saw a UNC fan wear. But it was only two years ago. UNC took a big step forward last year. Not so much for the Wolfpack.

7. Virginia Tech, Oct. 8

The end of the Frank Beamer era at Virginia Tech mirrored the end of the Bobby Bowden era at Florida State. Except at Virginia Tech there was no Jimbo Fisher waiting in the wings. Or superior recruiting year after year. Which is to say: It might (and likely will) take Justin Fuente a while to rebuild.

6. at Duke, Nov. 10

Another Thursday night, nationally televised game between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in Durham in November. These two programs, it seems, are always playing nationally televised, primetime games under the lights, with high stakes. Same old, same old here.

5. vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 5

The Yellow Jackets were 3-9 last year but it was a respectable 3-9, what with close, not-bad losses against Georgia, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pitt and – and – a victory against Florida State. Plus, most of the offense is back, giving the triple option a better chance to infuriate opposing defenses.

4. vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 24

Most of the starters are back on offense and defense, and that doesn’t include the return of James Connor, the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year. He missed last season after being diagnosed with cancer, and his return is already one of the great stories of the 2016 season.

1 at Florida State, Oct. 1

2 vs. Georgia (in Atlanta), Sept. 3

3 at Miami, Oct. 15

3. at Miami, Oct. 15

Miami seems the wildest of the wild cards in the Coastal. Who knows what to expect? All we know is that Mark Richt seems too good for Miami, which underachieves annually and has the worst stadium situation in the ACC. Not much depth here, but Miami doesn’t lack for top-end talent, as usual.

2. vs. Georgia (in Atlanta), Sept. 3

Is this the most important season-opener in school history for UNC? The case can be made. A victory on this kind of stage, against this kind of opponent, could do wonders for the Tar Heels. A loss and the national perception will be set – true or not – that UNC is more pretender than contender.

1. at Florida State, Oct. 1

A preview in early October of the ACC Championship game in early December? Could be. The Tar Heels hung with Clemson last year in the ACC title game. Doing the same in Tallahassee will be more difficult, but UNC did win there the last time these teams met, back in 2010.

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