North Carolina's resurgence during Mack Brown's second stint at the school has been swift. The Tar Heels were 5–18 in 2017-18, but they've tripled that win total in the last two seasons with two bowl trips since Brown returned. UNC capped last season by playing in the Orange Bowl, its first major bowl game since 1950. Although that game was a 41–27 loss to Texas A&M, it did little to detract from a season that served notice of UNC's return to relevance.
The question now is whether the Tar Heels can take the next step and become legitimate ACC title contenders. UNC returns 21 of the 22 players who started in the Orange Bowl, including star quarterback Sam Howell, and welcomes the nation's No. 14 recruiting class. Hopes are high in Chapel Hill. "I love expectations," says Brown, who received an offseason contract extension through the 2024 season. "That's what we want."
The Tar Heels will have less star power in 2021 after the departure of four of the best offensive skill players in the country. But their improved depth could make them a better team. The program hasn't quite returned to the heights it reached under Brown in 1996-97 — a top-10 finish in back-to-back seasons — but it's getting closer.
Previewing North Carolina's Offense for 2021
Howell begins his third season at the controls of UNC's Air Raid attack, which set school records for total offense (537.2 yards per game) and points per game (41.7) in 2020. He has 68 career TD passes, more than any player in ACC history through two seasons (Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is second with 66), and is among the preseason Heisman favorites.
Howell will have a different supporting cast after UNC lost its top two receivers (Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome) and the nation's top tailback tandem (Michael Carter and Javonte Williams) to the NFL. But the Tar Heels have some capable replacements. Josh Downs and Khafre Brown, Dyami's brother, offer speed at receiver. Beau Corrales and tight end Garrett Walston are experienced, trustworthy targets. Graduate transfer Ty Chandler, who rushed for 2,046 yards during four seasons at Tennessee, will lead a talented group of running backs.
"I think a lot of those guys are kind of tired of hearing about everybody we lost," Howell says. "I think they have a chip on their shoulder because everybody is talking about the people we lost and not the people we have."
UNC returns its entire offensive line. The team's top six linemen, all upperclassmen, have combined for 112 career starts. This group, led by left guard Joshua Ezeudu and stalwarts Marcus McKethan and Jordan Tucker on the right side, helped UNC average 6.5 yards per rush a year ago (excluding sacks). The pass protection (2.8 sacks allowed per game in 2020) has room for improvement, and Howell plans to help by unloading the ball sooner.
Previewing North Carolina's Defense for 2021
The Tar Heels must replace leading tackler Chazz Surratt, but they are poised for progress after forcing just 11 turnovers a year ago, worst in the ACC. Tomon Fox (33 career starts) and Jeremiah Gemmel return to lead the unit from their linebacker spots. Fox is one of the team's top pass rushers from the outside, and Gemmel is a force in the middle of the field.
Up front, UNC has reason for optimism. The Tar Heels have been undersized on the defensive line in recent years, but they have added several big, athletic linemen in their last couple of recruiting classes. Those efforts should reduce the burden on returning starters Raymond Vohasek and Tomari Fox. "We can actually get to two- or maybe even three-deep if the guys play up to their ability," Brown says. "I'm so excited about that position moving forward."
UNC should have one of the best defensive backfields in the ACC with a trio of standout cornerbacks in Storm Duck, Tony Grimes and Kyler McMichael. Duck missed the final 10 games last season because of injury, but he was one of UNC's top defensive players as a freshman in 2019. Grimes and McMichael were impressive in Duck's place, with Grimes living up to his lofty billing as one of the nation's top cornerback recruits. Safety Trey Morrison (31 career starts) brings valuable experience at several positions.
Previewing North Carolina's Specialists for 2021
UNC had another lackluster season on special teams, ranking eighth in the ACC in net punting and failing for the second consecutive year to return a kick or punt for a score. Kicker Grayson Atkins, a former FCS All-American, should improve after making just 12-of-18 field goals a year ago. Kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim, who blasted 76 of his 89 kickoffs for touchbacks in 2020, provides UNC's defense with solid field position.
There is a sense of urgency for the Tar Heels. This season figures to be their last with Howell, a projected top-5 draft pick in 2022, and they need to take advantage. If they can keep him healthy and improve as expected defensively, they can win the Coastal Division. UNC's conference schedule is manageable (no regular-season game against Clemson), and the season opener at Virginia Tech looms especially large. UNC will find out quickly whether its ACC championship dreams are real. The team has six league games, including five within the division, in the season's first seven weeks.
National Ranking: 10
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Sam Howell photo by Jim Dedmon/AP)