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

Miami vs. North Carolina Football Prediction and Preview

Sam Howell and the Tar Heels must navigate a challenging road slate this fall

The 2021 North Carolina Tar Heels are not expected to challenge Clemson for the ACC title, but many experts have predicted a top-10 finish and a Coastal Division championship. If Carolina is to reach those heights, it will have to navigate a rather daunting schedule.

UNC opens the season in one of the ACC’s toughest venues, and, for the second time in three years, it will face a conference foe in an out-of-league game. Four of the Heels’ five most difficult games will be played on the road, with one of them being against a 2020 College Football Playoff participant.

Related: North Carolina 2021 Season Preview and Prediction

Here is how UNC’s schedule breaks down, from 12 to 1.

12. Nov. 20 vs. Wofford

The Terriers had an abbreviated five-game spring season during which they went 1-4. But in 2019, Wofford was an FCS tournament team. Though it has a quirky offense that features the option, Wofford should be no match for the Heels.

11. Sept. 11 vs. Georgia State

The only game against a Group of 5 program comes in Week 2 when the Panthers come to Kenan Stadium. Georgia State returns almost everyone on both sides of the ball and has a dangerous passing game led by quarterback Cornelious Brown IV and receiver Sam Pinckney.

10. Oct. 2 vs. Duke

David Cutcliffe can coach. No one will question that statement. But the Duke program has backslid the past two seasons. The biggest problem last year was the Blue Devils’ -19 turnover margin, by far the worst number in America. With a new quarterback and just five starters returning on each side of the ball, Duke will have a tough time rebounding this fall.

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9. Sept. 25 at Georgia Tech

While this is technically Geoff Collins’s third year, it certainly doesn't feel like it. It will take more time to get the Jackets where Collins wants them to be considering the massive shift in offensive philosophy from the previous regime and the fact that COVID made 2020 a difficult year to assess. Still, with quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech should continue to improve.

8. Sept. 18 vs. Virginia

Coming off the Georgia State game, Carolina head coach Mack Brown should have his squad prepared for ACC game number two. The Cavs bring back quarterback Brennan Armstrong and all-league linebacker Nick Jackson, but they also lose a couple of impactful defenders in Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier.

7. Oct. 9 vs. Florida State

UNC undoubtedly remember last year’s game in Tallahassee. The 3-0, fifth-ranked Heels — fresh off a 56-point performance against Virginia Tech — laid an egg in the first half and couldn’t scramble back in the second 30 minutes, giving the Noles one of their three wins of 2020. If FSU can improve defensively, it could take a sizeable step forward this fall.

6. Nov. 6 vs. Wake Forest

In a repeat of 2019, the Tar Heels and the Demon Deacons will line up for a non-conference game. Last year’s game counted in the ACC standings and North Carolina overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit to win a wild one 59-53. With 19 starters returning, Wake will be one of the most experienced teams in the land.

5. Nov. 11 at Pittsburgh

Right after the Wake Forest battle, Carolina will head up to Pittsburgh on a short week to play the Panthers in a Thursday night game. Kenny Pickett is back again to guide the Pitt offense, but head coach Pat Narduzzi has some holes to fill on the defensive front and in the secondary.

4. Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech

After a year of limited crowd participation, Lane Stadium should be hopping when the Heels come to Blacksburg on the Friday of week one. Quarterback Braxton Burmeister and the Virginia Tech passing game should be potent, but how the defense progresses in Justin Hamilton’s second year as coordinator will determine the Hokies’ fate this season.

3. Nov. 26 at NC State

The Wolfpack are the trendy pick as the Atlantic Division’s second-best team. Bam Knight and Ricky Person Jr. give head coach Dave Doeren a 1-2 punch at running back, and a defense that improved as 2020 went on returns eight starters, including Payton Wilson, the nation’s fourth-leading tackler. If quarterback Devin Leary can remain healthy this fall, NC State should be one of the ACC’s best teams.

2. Oct. 16 vs. Miami

This is unquestionably the most important game on North Carolina’s schedule. Miami will be the Heels’ main challenger in the Coastal Division and will have December’s 62-26 beating still on its collective minds. Other than the loss of defensive ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche, the Canes return much of their production on both sides of the ball. That includes quarterback D’Eriq King, who should be healthy after offseason knee surgery.

1. Oct. 30 at Notre Dame

Notre Dame is the highest-ranked team on the schedule, the game is in South Bend, and the Irish dominated the Heels in the second half of last year’s game with top defender Kyle Hamilton on the bench. The good news for Carolina fans is that the Irish will have a different look this year after losing personnel on both sides of the ball and that UNC has an extra week to prepare.