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North Carolina Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Tar Heels' Schedule

North Carolina Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Tar Heels' Schedule

North Carolina Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Tar Heels' Schedule

Mack Brown is an optimist and that is wonderful considering the schedule facing North Carolina this fall. The new head coach has to look at the slate as an opportunity to significantly improve on last season's 2-9 record. Yes, drawing Clemson as the random crossover opponent is hardly ideal, but the Coastal Division is not the powerful side of the ACC and there are no other sure losses on the slate.

The pessimist would say that there are also few sure wins. UNC has two Power 5 non-conference opponents (including one from their own league) and a date with one of the best Group of 5 teams in the land. There could be a lot of tight contests for the Heels in 2019 and a squad that has gone 5-18 over the past two seasons needs to figure out how to win those nail-biters.

Here’s what's up for North Carolina this year, from easiest to Clemson.

12. Nov. 23 vs. Mercer

The Mercer football program is now entering its seventh season and is hoping to improve off a pair of 5-6 seasons. The Bears from the FCS ranks played Auburn tough in 2017, but Memphis blasted them 66-14 in last year's season opener.

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11. Oct. 5 at Georgia Tech

It’ll be a different Yellow Jackets team with Geoff Collins replacing Paul Johnson and the option attack. Besides overhauling the entire offensive system, Georgia Tech has just three starters returning on defense and has a very young two-deep roster on that side of the ball.

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10. Oct. 26 vs. Duke

With Daniel Jones now with the New York Giants, Quentin Harris will be asked to quarterback David Cutcliffe's offense. If the Devils can hold up on the defensive front line — they were 105th against the run and 84th in sacks — the secondary has a chance to be very good with star corner Mark Gilbert returning from a hip injury.

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9. Nov. 14 at Pittsburgh

The Heels have 12 days to prepare for this Thursday night game in Pittsburgh. The Panthers are the defending ACC Coastal champs, but they lose two 1,000-yard rushers as well as four starters on the offensive line. Quarterback Kenny Pickett was not asked to do a lot last year and that may have to change this fall.

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8. Sept. 12 at Wake Forest

In this Thursday night non-conference game, North Carolina will have just five days to prepare and will be coming off a game with Miami. But Wake will be coming back from a game against Rice in Houston on a short week, so both teams will have a challenge getting ready for this affair. The Demon Deacons return just nine total starters and will have to replace a true playmaker in wide receiver Greg Dortch.

Wake Forest: college football picks against the spread

7. Sept. 21 vs. Appalachian State

Scott Satterfield is now the head coach at Louisville, but new head man Eli Drinkwitz designed some nice offenses at NC State for Ryan Finley, and the Mountaineers return a star quarterback in Zac Thomas. If the defense remains as stingy as the 2018 unit, App State could contend for a New Year's Six bid as the top Group of 5 team.

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6. Nov. 2 vs. Virginia

It's been a steady build for Bronco Mendenhall, taking the Cavaliers from 2-10 to 6-7 to 8-5. With Bryce Perkins returning at quarterback and seven starters back on defense, the UVA faithful believe this team can challenge for the Coastal title.

Virginia: college football picks against the spread

5. Nov. 30 at NC State

Carolina has lost three in a row (and 9 of the last 12) to their neighbors to the east. Head coach Dave Doeren had to replace much of his defense in 2018 and the unit was still pretty solid. This year the changes are on offense with Ryan Finley, Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers, and Reggie Gallaspy off to the NFL and offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz now the head coach at Appalachian State.

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4. Sept. 7 vs. Miami

The Tar Heels get the Hurricanes in week two with both teams coming off battles with SEC foes. Miami does get an advantage in that they face Florida in week zero while UNC gets South Carolina on Labor Day weekend. Miami will once again be led by their strong linebacking corps while the Canes still need to find an answer at quarterback and will have a first-year head coach in former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Miami

3. Oct. 19 at Virginia Tech

After a rough 2018 season and a tumultuous offseason, Virginia Tech is looking forward to kicking things off this fall. With everyone except defensive tackle Ricky Walker back on defense and dangerous receivers Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner catching passes, there should be optimism in Blacksburg.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech

2. Aug. 31 vs. South Carolina (Charlotte, N.C.)

Deebo Samuel is no longer around for the Gamecocks, but quarterback Jake Bentley still has some weapons to use during his final season. Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith combined for 100 catches last year and South Carolina should be strong at linebacker thanks to the return of leading tacklers T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene.

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1. Sept. 28 vs. Clemson

Last year's national champs are obviously loaded once again. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, and wide receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are All-America candidates and though most the defensive front seven has departed, guys like Isaiah Simmons and Xavier Thomas are around to make this another dynamic unit.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.