So much was expected of North Carolina in 2021. Coming off an Orange Bowl season, with Sam Howell back at quarterback, the Tar Heels were the consensus favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division and found themselves in many top 10s. But a setback in the season opener to Virginia Tech got things going in the wrong direction and six more losses ensued.
Expectations won't be as high this fall. Howell is gone along with All-ACC running back Ty Chandler, a good chunk of the offensive line, and a couple of key defenders. But maybe flying under the radar is just what Mack Brown's team needs. The Heels start a week earlier than most, which gives them an extra week off during the season. There are a couple of big non-conference games early and they get Wake in an actual ACC contest for a change. But it's the month of October into the first Saturday in November – a stretch of five straight divisional matchups – that will determine Carolina's fate.
Here is what the Heels will be facing once the coming season begins.
Byes: Weeks 3, 8
Week 0 - Aug. 27 vs. Florida A&M (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
The Tar Heels get a jump-start on the season by opening with the FCS Rattlers in week zero. Florida A&M won nine games in both 2019 and 2021, but has had no success against FBS opponents in recent years.
Week 1 - Sept. 3 at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.)
It will be a big deal in Boone when Carolina comes to town for the first time ever. The two met up in Chapel Hill in 2019 and the Mountaineers came away with a 34-31 victory in the only game between the two programs. Amazingly, quarterback Chase Brice has another year of eligibility for App State after stints at Clemson and Duke.
Week 2 - Sept. 10 at Georgia State (Atlanta)
In a bizarre bit of scheduling for a Power 5 team, UNC will play consecutive road games against Group of 5 competition as the Heels head to Atlanta to play Georgia State in week two. The Panthers bring back a ton of production off their 2021 Camellia Bowl championship team.
Week 4 - Sept. 24 vs. Notre Dame (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
For the third year in a row, North Carolina draws Notre Dame in a non-conference game. It will be a new-look Irish with Marcus Freeman installed as the head coach, but with many different leaders, Notre Dame has built a 22-2 advantage in this series.
Week 5 - Oct. 1 vs. Virginia Tech (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
The Hokies also will be breaking in a new head coach, as Brent Pry replaces Justin Fuente. Along with a new coaching staff, there have been plenty of personnel changes for Virginia Tech, especially on offense where inexperienced Hokies will be asked to contribute at every position group.
Week 6 - Oct. 8 at Miami (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
In what is a run of games where the Heels will be squaring off against teams with new head coaches, UNC goes to South Florida to play Mario Cristobal and his Hurricanes. Miami will have to replace its top two receivers, but in quarterback Tyler Van Dyke and running back Jaylan Knighton, they will still have some offensive firepower.
Week 7 - Oct. 15 at Duke (Durham, N.C.)
Of the new opposing coaches on North Carolina's schedule, the one with the biggest challenge is Mike Elko at Duke. After going to bowl games in six of seven years, the Blue Devils have missed out on the postseason the past three seasons.
Week 9 - Oct. 29 vs. Pittsburgh (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
Following a week off, Carolina will host the defending ACC Coastal champion Panthers. USC quarterback transfer Kedon Slovis and All-American wide receiver Jordan Addison should put plenty of points on the board while defensive linemen Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey are back to create havoc for the opposition.
Week 10 - Nov. 5 at Virginia (Charlottesville, N.C.)
While Tony Elliott will be starting his first year as head coach, Mack Brown and the Tar Heels went toe to toe with Elliott in 2019 when he was the offensive coordinator at Clemson. In that game, Carolina held the Tigers to a season-low 21 points in a one-point Clemson victory.
Week 11 - Nov. 12 at Wake Forest (Winston-Salem, N.C.)
After meeting up just four times in eight years, Wake and Carolina will be doing battle for the fourth year in a row. In both the 2020 and '21 matchups, the Demon Deacons scored more than 50 points... and lost both games. This time though, it counts in the conference standings.
Week 12 - Nov. 19 vs. Georgia Tech (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
North Carolina was 2-1 and still had hopes of winning the Coastal when the Heels went to Atlanta last September to play the Yellow Jackets. But the devastating 45-22 loss to a Georgia Tech team that would go 3-9 on the season sent UNC on a downward spiral.
Week 13 - Nov. 25 vs. NC State (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
But of the seven losses in 2021, the most crushing had to be the one in Raleigh on Thanksgiving weekend. A Grayson Atkins 50-yard field goal put Carolina up by nine points with 2:12 left before the Wolfpack scored two touchdowns to win the game in regulation.
Podcast: Takeaways From Spring Games at Auburn, Texas A&M and Clemson, Transfer News, Early Spreads, and Looking Back at the Memorable 1998 Season
– 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.