Where exactly is North Carolina going under Mack Brown? After the Orange Bowl season of 2020, coupled with consecutive strong recruiting classes, many expected the Tar Heels to be a contender to Clemson in the ACC for years to come.
But last fall's 6-7 record slowed the optimism of the Carolina faithful and now the Heels must go forward without star quarterback Sam Howell. Brown was able to lock down another top recruiting class, but UNC needs a bounce-back season to prove that last year was a blip on an otherwise upward trajectory.
And the schedule won't be easy. They play two of the top Atlantic teams in crossover games and have a couple of tough non-conference games to go along with their usual Coastal slate. Here is a ranking of their toughest games from easiest to most difficult.
12. Aug. 27 vs. Florida A&M
The Tar Heels will definitely ease into the season by playing the Rattlers in Week Zero. Florida A&M did make the FCS playoffs last year, but the Rattlers' games against FBS programs in recent years have not been pretty.
11. Sept. 10 at Georgia State
Interestingly, this is one of two road games for North Carolina against Group of Five teams. In Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams, the Panthers have a lethal 1-2 punch at running back but need to improve both their passing game and pass defense.
10. Oct. 15 at Duke
Mike Elko takes over as the Blue Devils' new head coach and he has his work cut out for him in year one. Only nine total starters return from a team that went 0-8 in the ACC. Riley Leonard is the favorite to win the quarterback job and he will have a couple of solid targets in Eli Pancol and Jalon Calhoun.
9. Nov. 19 vs. Georgia Tech
Geoff Collins has won three games in each of his first three seasons at Georgia Tech. For this team to make a run at a bowl appearance, which may be what it takes to keep Collins employed in Atlanta, quarterback Jeff Sims needs to become a much bigger weapon, and a defense that was one of the nation's worst in 2021 has to become at least respectable.
8. Oct. 1 vs. Virginia Tech
Since becoming the Hokies' head coach, Brent Pry has said and done all the right things. Now it's about getting his team ready on Saturdays. Virginia Tech has some talent returning on the defensive side of the ball, but scoring points could be an issue in 2022.
7. Nov. 5 at Virginia
While new head coach Tony Elliott gives the Cavaliers a different look, the offense shouldn't change very much under veteran quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Though the line has been revamped, Armstrong still has Dontayvion Wicks, Billy Kemp, and Keytaon Thompson around and that should mean a lot of touchdowns. Now, if the Hoos' defense can get some stops.
6. Sept. 3 at Appalachian State
All of Boone, North Carolina, will be ready for this one as the Tar Heels play at App State for the first time. But it's not just the atmosphere that will be a problem. The Mountaineers have former ACC quarterback Chase Brice throwing the ball and should be one of the top teams at the Group of Five level.
5. Oct. 29 vs. Pitt
Even without Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett and Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison, the Panthers should once again contend for the Coastal crown. Led by Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado, the Pitt defensive front ranks among the nation's elite and USC transfer Kedon Slovis should step in nicely for Pickett. The Tar Heels' do have two weeks to prepare for the Panthers and host the game at Kenan Stadium.
4. Oct. 8 at Miami
Brown is 3-0 vs. the Hurricanes since he returned to Chapel Hill, but this will be a different Miami team. Head coach Mario Cristobal returns to his alma mater after a successful run at Oregon and quarterback Tyler Van Dyke is ready to roll in his second year as a starter. And while Carolina has an extra week to prepare for Pitt, Miami has an open date prior to hosting the Tar Heels.
3. Nov. 25 vs. NC State
Everyone in blue remembers what happened a year ago. Carolina held a nine-point lead with less than two minutes remaining and fell in regulation to the Wolfpack 34-30. Revenge will not be easy with quarterback Devin Leary and most of a nasty defense returning for the Wolfpack.
2. Nov. 12 at Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons had the nation's No. 4 scoring offense in 2021 and that shouldn't change with quarterback Sam Hartman and receiver A.T. Perry back for another run. There are some questions on defense, but the defending Atlantic champions should score enough points to remain one of the ACC's best.
1. Sept. 24 vs. Notre Dame
This will be the third year in a row that Carolina will play Notre Dame, but it will be the first time seeing Marcus Freeman as a head coach. The Irish need to find some answers at the skill positions on offense, but both lines should be dominant and if Tyler Buchner is the real deal at quarterback, ND will be a College Football Playoff contender again.
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.