UNC starts season in rankings, but will it finish there?

North Carolina Players T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood and Mitch Trubisky on first day of practice

Video: North Carolina players, Logan, Hood and Trubisky offer comments on the start of the 2016 season following the Tar Heels’ first practice on Friday, August 5, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Video: North Carolina players, Logan, Hood and Trubisky offer comments on the start of the 2016 season following the Tar Heels’ first practice on Friday, August 5, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

How goes that old cliché – something about how it’s not where you start but where you finish? North Carolina will begin the season ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press’ preseason top 25 – the Tar Heels’ highest preseason ranking since 2010 – and that’s all well and good.

Now the question becomes whether they’ll finish the season ranked, as well. If UNC does it’ll break a dubious streak, for no UNC team since 1997 has both started and ended a season in the top 25. The 1997 team entered the season ranked No. 7, peaked at No. 4 and was No. 6 in the final poll.

Since then, the Tar Heels have appeared in the preseason poll four times, not including this season. They entered the season No. 12 in 1998, No. 21 in 2009, No. 18 in 2010 and No. 23 in 2014. After starting with such promise, all of those seasons ended without UNC in the final AP poll.

There are plenty of reasons to believe this season will be different. Most of the offense is back, and coach Larry Fedora believes it can be better than it was a season ago, when UNC set school records in yards and points per game. The defensive secondary, especially at cornerback, is strong.

And perhaps most important, the Tar Heels, after winning 11 games and appearing for the first time in the ACC Championship a season ago, have the look of a team, and program, on the rise. It’s reasonable to believe the best days are yet to come.

Yet history provides no shortage of proof of how elusive sustained success has been at UNC. Preseason polls don’t carry much meaning but their one (and perhaps only) utility is that they provide a gauge of a program’s perception. After tying a school record with 11 victories, UNC is clearly trending up.

The expectations are high, as they have been in recent years – under former coach Butch Davis, and under Fedora earlier in his tenure – before the Tar Heels fizzled for a variety of reasons. Are the Tar Heels fizzle-proof this season? Not exactly.

They appear less likely to falter, though, than some of UNC’s other teams that have succumb to everything from an abhorrent defense to the unexpected start of a burgeoning NCAA investigation. Yet this UNC team, like all of them, still faces important questions.

How well the Tar Heels answer them will determine whether they finish the season where they begin it – in the national rankings. Here are those most important questions:

1. Can Mitch Trubisky stay healthy?

The Tar Heels have some clarity now at backup quarterback, even so, the quarterback position presents a giant question beyond Trubisky, who is the Tar Heels’ only quarterback with any college game experience. The notion that the offense can be better this season than last is built on the assumption that Trubisky remains on the field, productive and healthy.

2. Will the run defense become respectable?

UNC at times last season allowed large chunks of rushing yardage after the Tar Heels had already put games away. So some of the numbers detailing the porous run defense are a bit misleading. There was nothing misleading about what happened at the end of the season against Clemson and Baylor, though. The Tar Heels must improve here.

3. Can UNC stay healthy, overall?

Trubisky is the player the Tar Heels can least afford to lose. Significant injuries along the lines – both offensive and defensive – could be catastrophic, too, given the lack of experienced, proven depth there. If the Tar Heels remain at full strength, the coaching staff likes this team’s chances to compete with anybody. But top-to-bottom depth isn’t there yet, which increases the importance of health.

There are other factors to consider as well, particularly that of luck. A bounce here or there, a break in this game or that one, can sometimes set the course of a season. Those three questions, though – two of health, one of the defense’s ability to stop the run – are most paramount.

If the Tar Heels answer those questions the way they hope, there’s a good chance they’ll accomplish what no UNC team has since 1997. A No. 22 preseason ranking, then, could be just the beginning.

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