Can the Tar Heels overcome heavy personnel losses and put enough wins together for a fifth straight bowl appearance?
Larry Fedora inherited a solid program when he took over the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2012. The Heels had four consecutive winning seasons prior to Fedora’s arrival in Chapel Hill, though there was some turmoil off of the field. Despite uncertainty with regards to the NCAA, Fedora has maintained UNC’s winning ways, going to four straight bowl games as well as playing in the 2015 ACC Championship Game.
Now Fedora must prove that winning is ingrained in the program’s culture following some major personnel losses, especially on offense. On top of everything, North Carolina faces a schedule that consists of challenges from beginning to end.
Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Tar Heels’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
North Carolina Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
There has been a lot of change at North Carolina this offseason. The good news is that they have two seasoned returning linebackers in Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb. The defense will have to be better – especially against the run – because the offense loses most of its weapons, with wide receiver Austin Proehl the only holdover. The ACC Coastal Division, as scrambled as it is, has depth and crossover games against Louisville and NC State won’t be easy. Larry Fedora is a very good coach and will get UNC to bowl eligibility. But it won’t be easy.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With the departure of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and a couple of other key cogs from last year’s team, 2017 is clearly a rebuilding year for coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels opened fall camp with four candidates vying for the starting job, with LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris the likely starter. Can Fedora help Harris live up to his recruiting hype out of high school?
North Carolina made strides on defense under coordinator Gene Chizk, but he stepped aside following the 2016 season. John Papuchis has a solid foundation to work with in six returning starters from a unit that gave up 24.9 points a game last fall. The Tar Heels have to get tougher against the run after giving up 227.3 yards per game in 2016.
Another obstacle to Fedora’s rebuilding effort is the schedule. North Carolina catches Louisville and NC State in crossover play, hosts Notre Dame in non-conference action and has swing games at Pitt and Georgia Tech. Getting to a bowl would be a successful 2017 season for the Tar Heels.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
In terms of underrated ACC coaches, Larry Fedora might be up there given the job he's done in getting UNC to solid footing and then some. While the 40-25 record is impressive going into his sixth year, 2017 should test what he's built quite a bit given what the team has lost in the offseason. A lot of the attention will be paid to not having the No. 2 overall pick at quarterback but I'd be even more concerned over the loss of all the skill position talent on both sides of the ball. Transfers and recruiting have softened the blow a bit but this looks like a team that is going to experience a ton of ups and downs over the course of the season. If they can win some toss-up games, eight wins isn't out of the question but being in the Coastal means a few wild finishes that won't go their way.
Adam Kurkjian (@AdamKurkjian)
Depleted. Starting over. Rebuilding.
These are the terms that apply when you look at the players UNC lost from the 2016 team and who returns. When it comes to the latter, the answer is "almost no one."
Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is with the Chicago Bears. Top receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard? Gone. Leading rushers Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan? Also gone. Ditto most of the offensive line and almost everyone on defense.
Last year was supposed to be one where the Tar Heels leapt back into the ACC title game, but instead saw Virginia Tech steal that spot. The highlight was a last-second win over Florida State in Tallahassee. (Oh, yeah, the kicker who drilled that game-winning field goal, Nick Weiler? Take a wild guess. Correct, he’s gone too.)
Luckily, LSU transfer Brandon Harris, who was a square peg in a round hole at quarterback in Baton Rouge, is a graduate transfer who might be what the Heels need at QB. Wide receiver Austin Proehl is back and will be an early guy to lean on in the passing game. Linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith are a nice place to start on defense.
Coach Larry Fedora has a good thing going in Chapel Hill. However, this year a big step forward is unlikely. With the personnel losses across the board, this team needs to tread water.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
After defeating Florida State in Tallahassee last season, expectations were high for the Tar Heels. Then it just fell apart down the stretch as North Carolina lost three out of its last four games to finish 8-5.
Now UNC will need to replace a number of skill position players, including quarterback, running back and several wide receivers. LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris is expected to get the starting job at quarterback in the season opener against Cal.
The Tar Heels also have a defensive coordinator, as former linebackers coach John Papuchis is taking over for Gene Chizik, who resigned for family reasons.
With the Coastal being so wide open, UNC will have a shot to make some noise. But with the key players they lost over the offseason, it is hard to see the Tar Heels winning no more than seven games this season.