Last year (2015-16) was a pretty good one from a sports perspective for the North Carolina Tar Heels. There were lacrosse national titles for both the men and the women. The basketball team came oh so close to claiming another title before falling to Villanova in heartbreaking fashion in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. And the football team lost a close ACC Championship Game to Clemson after rattling off 11 wins in a row.
Now, with a new athletics year upon us all eyes in Chapel Hill are on Larry Fedora’s squad to see if the football team can build off of last year’s success. With much of the offense returning and another year for coordinator Gene Chizik to construct the defense the way he wants, repeating as Coastal Division champs and playing for the conference crown again is the expectation.
Can North Carolina follow up on last year’s breakthrough with another division title? Here is a game-by-game look at how Athlon Sports writers and contributors see the Tar Heels’ season playing out.
North Carolina Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
If new quarterback Mitch Trubisky performs as well as most believe that he can, the North Carolina offense will again be explosive. There is a deep group of talented receivers, four starters return up front, and Elijah Hood is an All-ACC-caliber running back. But a defense that ranked 122nd against the run last year will have to rebuild its entire linebacker corps and will face several quality rushing teams.
Georgia may not have its full stable of backs in the opener, but North Carolina will have a tough time beating the Bulldogs in Atlanta. Pittsburgh with James Conner and Qadree Ollison along with Florida State and Dalvin Cook will hand UNC consecutive losses going into October. But Larry Fedora and company right the ship and the Tar Heels win out to go 9-3.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The ACC’s Coastal Division is unpredictable, but I think the Tar Heels will once again claim the top spot. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is due for a breakout year as the new starter, and there’s a plethora of talented skill players, including running back Elijah Hood and receivers Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer. Guard Landon Turner will be tough to replace, but the Tar Heels return four starters up front to own one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. The defense showed improvement last year and returns one of the best cornerback duos in the nation with M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence. However, stopping the run is still a huge concern with only three returning starters in the front seven. North Carolina’s schedule is tougher this season, as a non-conference matchup is set against Georgia for the opener, along with crossover games against Florida State and rival NC State. Additionally, the Tar Heels play Miami on the road in mid-October. Repeating last year’s 11-win mark might be too much to ask; but there’s enough returning talent for head coach Larry Fedora’s team to earn another trip to the conference title game in December.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
Last year's surprising campaign no doubt raised expectations for North Carolina but I'm not sure the record will wind up being reflective of a team that could be better than the 2015 version. The offense shouldn't miss much of a beat with Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood and Ryan Switzer involved and the defense should continue to progress into a manageable unit under coordinator Gene Chizik. The schedule once again sets up well for the Tar Heels and if they can get some breaks on the close games, there's no reason not to label them the favorites in the Coastal once again.
Kevin McGuire (KevinOnCFB)
Larry Fedora took UNC football to a level it has struggled for years to reach by turning in an exhilarating 11-1 regular season and giving Clemson a little bit of a battle in the ACC Championship Game. Though the season ended with two straight losses (to Clemson and Baylor in the bowl game), the bar has been set and now North Carolina knows it is the top program in the usually wide-open ACC Coastal Division. Even with a new quarterback taking over, UNC's offense should be fun to watch once again. And dangerous too. Georgia will find that out the hard way in the opener in Atlanta, and UNC should have more than enough offense to put together a 10-win season.
The two losses will be critical ones though. A loss at Florida State (prepare for potential ACC Championship Game preview hype) will not go the way of the Tar Heels. Neither will their other trip to Florida, at Miami. A head-to-head loss to the Hurricanes could determine the ACC Coastal's representative in the ACC Championship Game, IF Mark Richt gets Miami to play at a more consistent level this fall. There is rarely a wide margin for error in the ACC Coastal, and that will once again be the case for UNC in the division.
Mike Ferguson (@MikeWFerguson)
Though it lost its final two games, North Carolina made big strides under Larry Fedora in 2015, winning 11 games and the ACC Coastal Division for the first time. Junior Mitch Trubisky, who takes over as the starting quarterback, looked great in relief of Marquise Williams last season and is surrounded with talented skill players like Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer to complement a very veteran offensive line.
On the defensive side of the ball, North Carolina should be solid in the secondary with Des Lawrence, M.J. Stewart and Donnie Miles, but the front seven was pushed around quite a bit by good rushing attacks to close 2015. With the likes of Georgia's Nick Chubb, Pittsburgh's James Conner and Florida State's Dalvin Cook on the schedule, that is a concern.
As far as the schedule goes, the Tar Heels will hit the ground running against Georgia. A 17-13 loss to South Carolina in last season's opener was the only defeat for North Carolina during the regular season and could serve as a motivator this time around. An early October trip to Florida State looks to be the toughest game on the slate, but it's the return trip to the Sunshine State two weeks later that could decide the ACC Coastal. The Tar Heels could also be on upset alert when visiting rival Duke on short rest.