What are the reasonable expectations for UNC football?

A 9-3 regular-season record sounds like a reasonable expectation for UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heels.
A 9-3 regular-season record sounds like a reasonable expectation for UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heels. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Chapel Hill is a small town, small enough to run into familiar faces fairly often. And so it was on Tuesday night, when out and about on an assignment I encountered a friendly North Carolina athletic department official I hadn’t seen in a while.

We talked briefly about football. Was I buying the hype surrounding the Tar Heels?

Indeed, I said, before stating the obvious: UNC very well could be better than it was a season ago, when it won 11 games, but finish with a worse record. That’s the reality the Tar Heels face given a more difficult schedule.

There’s the season-opening game against Georgia in Atlanta. Road games at Florida State and at Miami. And several other games against teams with new coaching staffs, which makes it more difficult to know what to expect.

Still, though, it’s always an obvious question around this time of year: What are the reasonable expectations? And after breaking through last season with 11 wins, and a Coastal Division championship, where do the Tar Heels go from here?

To make sense of what to expect, it makes sense to take a game-by-game look at UNC’s schedule. We’ve done this before, assigning a percentage of winning to each game. It’s a good way of gaining an understanding of what a reasonable victory total would be at the end of the regular season.

Here’s how it works. For each game, I’ll take a guess – an educated guess, based on my prowess as an esteemed college football beat reporter – at UNC’s chances of winning. That guess will be translated in decimal-point percentage form. So a game with an 85 percent chance of victory is .85.

Then you add up all the numbers at the end and there’s your reasonable regular-season victory total. It’s all highly mathematical and scientific. Let’s get started and work through the entire schedule:

Sept. 3 vs. Georgia in Atlanta

Chance of UNC victory: .45

Reasoning: Would be higher but this is basically a road game for UNC and the Tar Heels have to prove the run defense is better against a team with two stellar (but recovering-from-injury) running backs.

Sept. 10 at Illinois

Chance of UNC victory: .85

Reasoning: The first Big Game of the Lovie Smith tenure at Illinois means the Illini will be amped, which means a slightly less chance, maybe, of a complete UNC runaway.

Sept. 17 vs. James Madison

Chance of UNC victory: .99

Reasoning: The Dukes are a very solid FCS team but the Tar Heels should be at the point now of not having to worry too much about a lower-division opponent.

Sept. 24 vs. Pittsburgh

Chance of UNC victory: .65

Reasoning: I’m high on Pitt this season. The return of James Connor is perhaps the best story in college football. Rushing offense should be very good. This game is overlooked but it’ll be difficult.

Oct. 1 at Florida State

Chance of UNC victory: .20

Reasoning: The last time these teams played, UNC won in Tallahassee in 2010. It’d be more of an upset now than then, even with UNC’s ascent. That’s how good Florida State should be this season.

Oct. 8 vs. Virginia Tech

Chance of UNC victory: .75

Reasoning: Mainly, the reasoning is that it will take Virginia Tech a little bit to get going under a new coaching staff. There’s lots to fix, especially offensively.

Oct. 15 at Miami

Chance of UNC victory: .50

Reasoning: A toss-up game and Miami gets the edge at home (though it has a terrible home-field advantage). The Hurricanes have to be more imposing under Mark Richt, right? Right!?

Oct. 22 at Virginia

Chance of UNC victory: .85

Reasoning: See Virginia Tech. It figures that it will take a while for the Cavaliers, so inept under Mike London, to learn how to win under Bronco Mendenhall and Co.

Nov. 5 vs. Georgia Tech

Chance of UNC victory: .75

Reasoning: UNC’s defense figured out the triple-option in the second half in Atlanta last season and given the Tar Heels’ defensive competence, this isn’t a good match-up for the Yellow Jackets.

Nov. 10 at Duke

Chance of UNC victory: .75

Reasoning: UNC has dominated Duke two years running now – and through much of the past quarter century, overall – and the Tar Heels appear a few steps ahead, even with Duke’s overall improvement.

Nov. 19 vs. The Citadel

Chance of UNC victory: .95

Reasoning: A slightly higher chance of an upset here because of The Citadel’s reliance, and success, with the run. By now we’ll know if UNC’s run defense is susceptible.

Nov. 25 vs. N.C. State

Chance of UNC victory: .80

Reasoning: The Wolfpack’s 35-7 victory at Kenan Stadium seems like a long, long time ago. UNC, it appears, has taken a big step forward – one the Wolfpack will hope to emulate this season.

OK, so now it’s time to add up all the percentages, and the total is …


Which roughly translates into a regular-season record of 8-4 or 9-3.

An 8-4 finish would be seen as a disappointment, and probably rightfully so. A 9-3 finish, though, seems quite reasonable given the increased difficulty of the schedule and the uncertainty of playing several teams with new coaching staffs.

With some luck and breaks, the Tar Heels could finish with a better record than 9-3. With some bad luck and bad breaks, a worse record becomes more realistic.

And a 9-3 finish – with a 6-2 record in the ACC – would likely give the Tar Heels a good shot of going back to the ACC championship game, possibly in a regular-season rematch with Florida State. It’d be a good season, a reasonable season, for UNC, which has its sights set higher.