2015 should be the year North Carolina takes their big step forward. The first three seasons of the Larry Fedora project have been average to slightly above average, not exactly what Bubba Cunningham envisioned for his football program.
Fedora was brought in to win games. After the success he had at
Southern Miss it seemed that the combination of UNC’s resources, the fertile recruiting ground of the state of North Carolina, a down ACC and Fedora’s offensive mind would lead to sustained success. It hasn’t happened yet.
This is the season when it all could come together. Fedora is in his fourth season; the schedule couldn’t be much more favorable, and the amount of returning offensive talent is the envy of the conference.
Coaches can be forgiven for not winning their first year. Fans understand that installing a new system and finding the right players can take time. Change does not happen overnight, but eventually the time for results comes. This season all but the fifth year seniors (or transfers) are players who have played exclusively under Coach Fedora. Installing the system and having the “right guys” should be solved by now.
The Tarheels return nine starters on offense, four offensive lineman and five skill players. Quarterback Marquise Williams should put up All-ACC type numbers, and he has the weapons to put up Playstation numbers. At receiver Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer return as does running back Elijah Hood. On the line only Bentley Spain is a new starter. Experienced talent abounds.
It takes a bit of luck to have a plethora of experienced talent coincide with a great schedule. If you were trying to make the perfect schedule, you would be hard pressed to make a better one than this year’s UNC slate. First you would want to make sure that you didn’t get an in conference rotating opponent who would be too good. North Carolina gets Wake Forest instead of Clemson, Florida State or Louisville. That should help.
Second, you want to make sure that you do not have many difficult road games. UNC will play only three games outside of the state of North Carolina. Of the first seven games the Tarheels only play one road game (Georgia Tech).
Third, you want to make a reasonable out of conference schedule, but nothing too hard. North Carolina has two power five opponents on their schedule. That sounds pretty ambitious. They play Illinois at home and South Carolina in Charlotte. Neither the Illini nor the Gamecocks are unbeatable, and winning both wouldn’t be much of an upset.
As any Tarheel fan knows, this isn’t a complete team, yet. The defense was abysmal last season. The defense gave up just under 500 yards per game last season (498) including over 600 to Georgia Tech and almost 800! to East Carolina. Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has joined the staff to remake the defense. Chizik has a good track record as a defensive coordinator, but is a little short on the kind of magic trick it would take to turn around this defense overnight.
While everyone recognizes the defensive shortcomings, the offense hasn’t always been as great as advertised. Memories of Clemson (50-35), Notre Dame (50-43) and East Carolina (70-41) certainly seem to confirm the conventional wisdom that the offense did its part, but the defense couldn’t stop anything. In those games that was true, but that wasn’t always the case.
Against NC State (35-7), Miami (47-20), Virginia Tech (34-17) and Rutgers (40-21) the vaunted Tarheel O wasn’t able to score more than a pair of touchdowns in lopsided losses. In fact, when the games became shoot outs, the Tarheels couldn’t keep up. Pittsburgh, a 40-35 win, and Georgia Tech, a 48-43 win, stand out as exceptions.
2015 or Bust?
2016 won’t be as kind to the Heels from a schedule perspective. Instead of South Carolina in Charlotte they’ll have Georgia in Atlanta, and instead of Illinois at home, they’ll have to travel to Champaign. They will have to travel to Miami and swap Florida State in and Wake Forest out. Even a steadily improving program might not have the opportunity for as many wins.
In 2016 they could still return many starters, especially on offense, but it’s far from guaranteed. Players leave early, transfer, get passed on the depth chart and a million other things over the course of a year. It may seem like “next year” could have plenty of returning talent, too, but you don’t know for sure.
2015 is the big chance the Tarheels need. Each of the last few seasons they’ve been on the verge of moving to the upper echelons of the ACC, but whether because of defensive follies or an occasional offensive disappearing act, they haven’t been quite able to do it. This season is about as favorable as it gets.
South Carolina is the first step. Beat the Gamecocks and UNC should be easily 4-0 headed into an October meeting with Georgia Tech. Regardless of the result in Atlanta, the Heels should be 8-1 or 9-0 when Miami comes to town in November. Offensive consistency and a semblance of competence on defense are the last pieces the Tarheels need for a very special 2015.