The Tar Heels rank No. 18 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2020
Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill was a smashing success — even though it included six heartbreaking losses. The Tar Heels played in their first bowl game since 2016 and closed the season with blowout victories over NC State (41–10 on the road) and Temple (55–13 in the Military Bowl). More importantly, Brown injected energy into a program that needed it. UNC sold out its season ticket allotment before the season and finished with a top-20 recruiting class after it. And Brown is just getting started. The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense, including record-setting quarterback Sam Howell, and have an improving defense with talent and experience in the back seven.
UNC went 3–6 last season in games decided by seven points or fewer, losing those six contests by a combined 26 points. With small improvements, the Tar Heels can dream big.
“Our goals are different,” Brown says. “Last year, we were trying to beat somebody. Last year, we were trying to finish games. Last year, we were trying to get to a bowl game. This year, we want to win the league.”
Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2020
Previewing North Carolina’s Offense for 2020
UNC’s Air Raid attack returns most of its significant contributors after ranking second in the ACC in total yards (474.0 per game). Howell, the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year, is the headliner after throwing a school-record 38 touchdown passes and finishing second in the league in passing yards and passing efficiency. He should be more of a threat as a runner this season now that UNC has some depth behind him.
Speaking of running, the Tar Heels have a dynamic 1-2 punch in tailbacks Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. They combined for 1,936 rushing yards last season (1,003 for Carter), and both could push for 1,000 yards in 2020. Carter is shifty with a school-record career average of 6.0 yards per carry, while Williams is a punishing runner who rarely is tackled by the first defender.
UNC’s receivers are equally dangerous, led by the twosome of Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Both players posted at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches last season, and Brown led the league with 20.3 yards per reception. Beau Corrales provides a big, physical target on the outside, and Garrett Walston returns after seizing the starting job at tight end.
Up front, UNC has continuity in the group paving the way for its skilled stars. The team must replace Charlie Heck at left tackle, but the rest of the offensive line returns intact. Joshua Ezeudu figures to start at either left guard or tackle, with Asim Richards (tackle) or Ed Montilus (eight starts last season at guard) filling the spot not occupied by Ezeudu.
Previewing North Carolina’s Defense for 2020
Chazz Surratt was a revelation in 2019, transitioning from quarterback into a first-team All-ACC linebacker who wreaked havoc all over the field. He returns for his senior year to lead a position group that includes Jeremiah Gemmel, who started all 13 games and finished second on the team (behind Surratt) in tackles.
Up front, the Tar Heels will try to generate the improved pass rush that Brown desires. They must replace stalwarts Aaron Crawford and Jason Strowbridge on the defensive line, where they have several underclassmen vying for playing time. Senior Tomon Fox (6.5 sacks last season) provides experience in his role as an edge rusher with some linebacker responsibilities. Tomari Fox and Jahlil Taylor are promising young returners as down linemen, and UNC welcomes a talented pass rusher in freshman Desmond Evans.
The Tar Heels struggled with injuries in the secondary last season, but they still tied for second in the ACC with 14 interceptions. This year, they are much deeper. Cornerback Patrice Rene, who returns after suffering a torn ACL in the second game last year, will be joined in the secondary by returning starters Trey Morrison, Storm Duck and D.J. Ford. Three other players who saw significant action a year ago are back, and transfer cornerbacks Bryce Watts and Kyler McMichael, who both sat out in 2019, also are in the mix. “It’s going to be really competitive back there,” Brown says.
Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists for 2020
Special teams are a huge emphasis after UNC returned no kicks for touchdowns and ranked 11th in the league in net punting a year ago. To that end, Brown hired former Nebraska assistant Jovan Dewitt as his new special teams coordinator. UNC has dangerous kick returners in Carter (kickoffs) and Newsome (punts), and the team welcomes graduate transfer Grayson Atkins at kicker. Atkins was an FCS All-American last year, making 13-of-15 field-goal attempts for Furman.
It’s no coincidence that all seven Coastal teams have won the division in the last seven years. The only safe prediction has been chaos, but it’s possible UNC is ready to emerge as a consistent winner. The Tar Heels have tough nonconference games at UCF and vs. Auburn to kick off the season, but their league schedule is favorable with interdivision games at Boston College and at home vs. NC State. If they can successfully navigate a difficult October that features a home game against Virginia Tech and trips to Virginia, Duke and Miami, they should contend for their first Coastal crown since 2015.
National Ranking: 18
(Top photo courtesy of goheels.com)