Tar Heels will have to navigate an interesting slate of games to win the ACC Coastal Division
North Carolina's Orange Bowl appearance was the program's fourth time competing in a major bowl game and its first since 1949. With recruiting humming along and a new, positive vibe emanating from Chapel Hill, the Tar Heel faithful expect the next New Year's Six Bowl trip will happen sooner rather than later.
The next step is to win one of these games, something the Heels have never done. But you cannot win a New Year's Six game without getting there and with Clemson continuing to dominate the league, UNC will have to either slay the Tigers or position themselves to be the next team up in the years that Dabo Swinney's crew qualifies for the College Football Playoff.
As for the latter route, the schedule becomes very important. Here's how the upcoming slate looks for Carolina.
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 – Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Va.)
In normal times, there are few things more exciting than opening the season in prime time at Lane Stadium. The Tar Heels won an offensive showcase last year while the Hokies persevered in a five-overtime contest in 2019. Virginia Tech will be re-tooling on offense but knows that Carolina is the team to beat in the Coastal Division, so motivation will not be an issue, especially in week one.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Georgia State (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
The Panthers have been to three bowl games in Shawn Elliott's four seasons as head coach. Quarterback Cornelious Brown IV, leading rusher Destin Coates, and top receiver Sam Pinckney all return from last year's LendingTree Bowl champs. The defense will have to replace Jordan Strachan, a star edge rusher that transferred to South Carolina.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Virginia (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
The Tar Heels face both Commonwealth teams in their first two ACC games. Dubbed the "South's Oldest Rivalry," UNC and UVA have clashed 125 times with the Heels winning either 62 or 63 times, depending on which school's records you believe. The Cavaliers hope that quarterback Brennan Armstrong can do enough to offset the players lost off the defense.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Georgia Tech (Atlanta)
Year two didn't go as planned for Geoff Collins' crew as the Yellow Jackets won three games for the second year in a row. But in what should be a more regular season, with quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs now in their second years, Georgia Tech should be much improved. The Jackets will miss linebacker David Curry, their top tackler and leader of the defense for the past two years.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Duke (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Since 2012, Duke holds a 5-4 edge in this bitter rivalry. But last year's 56-24 UNC victory may be a sign of things to come. While Carolina is undoubtedly on the rise, the Blue Devils' win total has dipped from eight in 2018 to five in '19 to just two last fall. The first order of business for head coach David Cutcliffe is to find a quarterback, with Gunnar Holmberg being the odds-on favorite to win the job.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. Florida State (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Due to the unique 2020 scheduling, the Tar Heels and the Seminoles will play for the second consecutive season. Similar to Duke, Florida State needs to sort out its quarterback situation. Jordan Travis showed flashes last fall, especially as a runner, but there is a good chance he will be backing up McKenzie Milton. If the UCF transfer is healthy, he is the best option for the Noles.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Miami (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
In back-to-back weeks, the Tar Heels will host the two ACC teams from the state of Florida. The Hurricanes still have to be smarting from the 62-26 thrashing Carolina gave them last December to earn the Orange Bowl bid.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.)
The open date comes at a good time for the Tar Heels as it gives them an extra week to prepare for their trip to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish no longer have Ian Book, the quarterback that gave Carolina fits in last year's 31-17 victory in Chapel Hill.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Wake Forest (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
For the second time in three years, the Tar Heels and the Demon Deacons will be facing each other in a non-conference tilt. The two met up last year in a game that counted in the ACC standings, with Carolina coming back to win 59-53 in a wild shootout.
Week 11– Nov. 11 at Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh)
Going on the road in a short week is not easy and playing against a Pat Narduzzi-coached team is never a picnic either. Kenny Pickett will be back to quarterback Pitt for what seems like his 18th season, but there will be some new faces on the Panthers' defense.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Wofford (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Taking a page from the SEC playbook, Carolina scheduled an FCS opponent the weekend before Thanksgiving. The Terriers played five games this spring before ending their season due to injuries and players opting out due to COVID-19. They were 1-4 after going 8-4 in 2019.
Week 13 – Nov. 26 at NC State (Raleigh, N.C.)
The 2021 schedule finds Carolina's game against the Wolfpack back where it should be: on Thanksgiving weekend. The COVID-19 reshuffling pushed last year's game up to October, but this fall the longtime rivals will battle it out on the Friday after the holiday. Dave Doeren's 2020 NC State squad rebounded nicely from a disappointing 2019 campaign by making the Gator Bowl and winning eight games.
— 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.
(Top photo by Grant Halverson, courtesy of goheels.com)