To say this season has been a struggle for North Carolina would be an understatement. The Tar Heels are 1-5 at the halfway point with the lone victory coming against a team from Conference USA.
To be fair, Larry Fedora can point some of the blame on injuries, as he’s already lost more than a dozen players for the season. But the reality is this team is struggling on both sides of the ball and while there have been a few bright spots, this is shaping up to be a forgettable campaign in Chapel Hill.
Offensive MVP: QB Chazz Surratt
The redshirt freshman was beat out by LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris for the starting job, but he made his debut early in the opener against California and hasn’t looked back. Surratt is 10th in the ACC in total offense (224.3 ypg) and has accounted for at least one TD in every game but one.
Defensive MVP: DE Malik Carney
The junior leads the team and is in the top 10 in the ACC with seven tackles for a loss. He also is tops on the Tar Heels with 2.5 sacks, has 26 total tackles (fifth) and three quarterback hurries.
Best Moment of the First Half: Leading Louisville entering the fourth quarter
Coming off of a disappointing season-opening loss at home to California, North Carolina wasn’t expected to put up much of fight against Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Instead, the Tar Heels, a 12-point underdog entering the game, held Jackson somewhat in check through three quarters and led 28-27. An offensive explosion in the fourth quarter resulted in a 47-35 victory for the Cardinals, but credit North Carolina for making them earn it.
Best Newcomer: RB Michael Carter
This could easily be Surratt as well, but in the spirit of spreading the wealth let's give the nod to Carter. The true freshman is second on the team with 231 rushing yards and leads the way with five touchdowns. He’s averaging nearly five yards per carry (4.8) and his longest play from scrimmage thus far is a 47-yard run against California in the opener.
Biggest Surprise: So many injures
Injuries are a part of the game, but it’s fair to say that North Carolina has been dealt a rather harsh hand in this respect this season. Thirteen Tar Heels have already been lost for the season because of injuries, a group that includes numerous starters – linebacker Andre Smith, wide receiver Austin Proehl, defensive tackle Tyler Powell, and offensive linemen Tommy Hatton and William Sweet among them. Prior to the Duke game two weeks ago, there were 19 total players listed on North Carolina’s injury report. To add insult to even more injury, six players visited the injury tent in Saturday’s rain-soaked, 33-10 loss to Notre Dame and two of those, including starting safety Donnie Miles, weren’t able to return to the game.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Where will the wins come from?
North Carolina is facing the prospect of going 2-10 and winless (0-8) in the ACC. The last time the Tar Heels won just two games in season was in 2003 under John Bunting. The last time they went without a win in conference play was back in 1989 (0-7) in Mack Brown’s second season. There are still six games to play, but a schedule (see below) that includes three ranked teams — Miami, Virginia Tech and NC State — and likely just one matchup in which the Heels will be favored seems especially daunting for a team that has been ravaged by injuries and is struggling on offense and defense.
2. Chazz Surratt’s development
One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season has been the emergence of the redshirt freshman quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky left big shoes to fill and while Surratt is nowhere near NFL-ready, he has shown signs that he can be the next quarterback to shine in Larry Fedora’s up-tempo offense. Staying healthy will be the first step, but the talent is there and how much he (and the offense) improves over the second half will go a long ways towards giving the fan base something to be excited about looking ahead to 2018.
3. Larry Fedora’s temperament
Following Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame, Fedora was at a loss for words to explain what is going on with his team. As ugly as North Carolina’s 1-5 record looks, the Tar Heels have been besieged by injuries, which was the last thing a team that was replacing so much production to begin with could afford. The constant shuffling of the depth chart has only added to the challenge Fedora and his coaching staff has faced this season, yet it will be easy for everyone, from analysts to talking heads to the fans, to point the finger at the head coach. How Fedora deals with all of the questions and criticism will not only impact his team and how it finishes, but also could impact his future with the program.
Ranking the Toughest Games Remaining on the Schedule
Nov. 25 at NC State
The Wolfpack won last year in Chapel Hill and are undefeated and establishing themselves as a threat to Clemson in the Atlantic Division. NC State’s defensive line is enough to cause the Tar Heels issues but this team also has plenty of offensive firepower to contend with.
Oct. 21 at Virginia Tech
Last year the Hokies swamped the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in a game that was played in less-than-ideal conditions because of Hurricane Matthew. Regardless of whether weather ends up being a factor in this one or not, North Carolina probably won’t enjoy this trip to Lane Stadium as much as the last one (30-27 OT win in 2015).
Oct. 28 Miami
The Tar Heels put a serious dent into the Hurricanes’ division title hopes last season when they won 20-13 down in Miami. Mark Richt’s team would no doubt love to return the favor at Kenan Stadium, especially after finally breaking through against archrival Florida State in thrilling fashion this past Saturday.
Oct. 14 Virginia
Not only is this not the same North Carolina team that beat Virginia 35-14 in Charlottesville last season, this also is not the same Cavaliers team – look no further than their upset of Boise State on the road a couple of weeks ago. Bronco Mendenhall’s defense is playing well and so is quarterback Kurt Benkert.
Nov. 9 at Pittsburgh
The Panthers have yet to beat the Tar Heels since joining the ACC in 2013. These two teams are extremely similar statistically speaking. This game could be a critical one for Pitt when it comes to bowl eligibility.
Nov. 18 Western Carolina
Yes the Catamounts are an FCS team. But they are an FCS team that's a respectable 4-2 at this point with losses to Wofford (undefeated and No. 10 in Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll this week) and at Hawaii (41-18 in Week 1). Western Carolina also has one of the top rushing attacks in FCS (260.5 ypg, ninth), which could pose some trouble for the Tar Heels’ banged-up defense.