For the first time since 1997, North Carolina enters the season ranked in the AP top 10. In 1997, the Tar Heels finished the year ranked No. 6, their highest spot since 1948, which led to the Texas courtship of then-UNC head coach Mack Brown.
Brown is obviously back in Chapel Hill and after two successful building years, a 1997-like finish is not out of the realm of possibility. Carolina opens and closes the regular season with dangerous ACC road games while their two toughest tests will occur in back-to-back contests to close out October.
Can the Heels manage this schedule and be a top-10 team when all is said and done? Here is what a couple of Athlon Sports editors and a college football contributor think.
North Carolina Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s hard to find many guaranteed losses on North Carolina’s schedule, but my guess is that the ACC (and Coastal chaos) is good for a surprise defeat or two. Although the supporting cast at receiver and running back will feature new names, the concern level on offense should be minimal for coach Mack Brown. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler is a steady option at running back, and Josh Downs is primed for a breakout year. And of course, with quarterback Sam Howell back for his junior season as one of the top signal-callers in the nation, it’s hard to worry too much about this group. North Carolina’s defense has a good mix of veterans and promising young talent, so improving off last year’s performance (29.4 ppg allowed) should be within reach. The opener at Virginia Tech and road trek to Notre Dame in October provide plenty of intrigue, but with Miami coming to Chapel Hill, the path to the division title has to run through Howell and Brown.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
There hasn't been this much buzz about North Carolina's football team since the late 1990s. The pieces appear to be in place for Mack Brown's team to make a lot of noise on the gridiron, but does that mean these Tar Heels will live up to the hype? It starts and ends with quarterback Sam Howell. If he stays healthy, this team should put up points and be a real threat to not only win the ACC Coastal but also get back to New Year's Six bowl. With eight returning starters, the defense also could take a step forward, although there are key players that need to be replaced on both sides of the ball. We'll find out right away if this UNC team is for real with the opener in Blacksburg while the other games that loom large are a visit to South Bend to face Notre Dame, which is preceded (with a bye in between) by a showdown with Miami in Chapel Hill. The Heels can't afford any slip-ups along the way but that doesn't mean that 10 wins and a trip to Charlotte aren't within reach.
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
Returning Sam Howell, the entire offensive line, and most of the defense is a good starting spot. While the offensive skill position losses were significant, there is talent waiting in the wings, especially at wide receiver. Either North Carolina or Miami will win the Coastal Division and that should be decided on Oct. 16. Because the game is at Kenan Stadium, I believe Carolina will win that contest and find its way to the ACC Championship Game.
But I don’t think this is a squad that’s good enough to run the table. While the offensive line is experienced, these same players were inconsistent in 2020. The unit dominated Miami, but got manhandled by Notre Dame. The defense lacks a clear playmaker with linebacker Chazz Surratt gone, though corner Tony Grimes may be poised to take the next step. And as good as the wide receivers and running backs can be, you don’t lose that many stars and expect to get better.
So I think they will drop a couple of games. Carolina will most likely lose at Notre Dame and then will stumble in one of the tricky ACC road games. My prediction is that UNC will be 10-1 going into Raleigh on Thanksgiving Friday but will fall to the Wolfpack. Still, a 10-2 season and a spot opposite Clemson in the ACC Championship Game probably means a second consecutive Orange Bowl appearance.