Before North Carolina played Clemson in the 2015 ACC Championship Game, there was debate about the Tar Heels’ viability as a College Football Playoff contender. After losing the first game of the season, UNC rattled off 11 straight wins and some believed that a 12-1 record and an ACC title with a win over the nation’s top-ranked team should have been enough to propel the Heels into the final four.
But coming out of the weaker Coastal with two wins over FCS opponents, a loss to 3-9 South Carolina, and NC State as the most difficult crossover conference game, North Carolina’s candidacy would have been tenuous at best.
Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels face a more daunting schedule in 2016, though two games against opponents from the FCS level remain. Here is North Carolina’s regular season schedule ranked by degree of difficulty, from easiest to most challenging.
12. Sept. 17 vs. James Madison
The Dukes return a lot of production on both sides of the ball from last season’s FCS playoff team. But they did lose two key cogs: quarterback Vad Lee and head coach Everett Withers, who is now at Texas State.
11. Nov. 19 vs. The Citadel
In the second of the two FCS contests, North Carolina faces a Citadel squad that returns do-everything quarterback Dominique Allen, much of their skill production talent, and most of the defense. UNC’s run defense was woeful in 2015 and the Bulldogs’ option attack could pose a threat. But after playing Georgia Tech just two weeks prior, Carolina should not be fooled and the Tar Heels should be able to score plenty against The Citadel’s smaller, slower defense.
10. Sept. 10 at Illinois
Lovie Smith has brought a lot of energy to the Champaign-Urbana area. But there are holes to fill. Even with a veteran offensive line, the Illini were last in the Big Ten in rushing offense in 2015. Then this spring, receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL for a second time. The secondary needs to be rebuilt and it will take time for Smith to get his system running smoothly.
9. Oct. 22 at Virginia
The Cavaliers are another opponent that will be looking to rise after a coaching change. Former BYU head man Bronco Mendenhall has a star in safety Quin Blanding but quarterback Matt Johns must develop more consistency without his top wide receiver, Canaan Severin.
8. Nov. 25 vs. NC State
With Jacoby Brissett now in Foxboro being tutored by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Jalan McClendon becomes the Wolfpack’s signal-caller. The line is inexperienced and running back Matt Dayes is coming back from a foot injury. State’s defense should be solid, but Carolina should be ready in its final home game of the year.
7. Nov. 5 vs. Georgia Tech
The Heels won a shootout in Atlanta last season and more offense will probably be on the menu this time around. Justin Thomas will have most of his skill position friends back and though the Yellow Jackets were decent defensively last fall, they will have difficulty controlling Carolina’s scoring machine. UNC also is aided by an off week before the contest, giving them more time to prepare for Georgia Tech’s option game.
6. Nov. 10 at Duke
No, it’s not a long trip to Durham. But getting the hated Blue Devils on a short week after facing Georgia Tech the previous Saturday is a tricky spot. Duke will have a new quarterback due to an Achilles injury suffered by Thomas Sirk this spring and also must replace team leaders Jeremy Cash and Matt Skura. But it’s Duke and David Cutcliffe is still the head coach. That is enough to make this a challenging game.
5. Oct. 8 vs. Virginia Tech
New head coach Justin Fuente knows a thing or two about offensive football and the Hokies have some pass-catching weapons in Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips plus a solid running back in Travon McMillian. Bud Foster will put together a disruptive defense despite some losses along the line. UNC has to be careful of a Florida State hangover in this game, as the Heels go to Doak Campbell the week before battling the Hokies.
4. Sept. 24 vs. Pittsburgh
While North Carolina has to be wary of putting the Florida State game behind it when playing Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels must focus on not looking ahead to the Seminoles when the Panthers come to town. The running back duo of Qadree Wilson and cancer survivor James Conner could be a big problem for a UNC defense that has struggled to stop the rush for the better part of three years.
3. Oct. 15 at Miami
The games against Miami, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech all have a similar level of difficulty. But this game is on the road and Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya should excel under the guidance of new head coach Mark Richt. UNC should be able to move the ball on Miami; stopping Kaaya and the running game will be the issue.
2. Sept. 3 vs Georgia (Atlanta)
Technically, this is not a road game. But it’s a stretch to call a game against the Bulldogs in Atlanta a neutral site game. With Mark Richt in Miami, the Kirby Smart era will open in the Georgia Dome. Georgia has some questions but there is enough talent to come up with good answers. It will be interesting to see if the Bulldogs decide to start true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason in week one.
1. Oct. 1 at Florida State
The Tar Heels are 2-15-1 against the Seminoles, though the teams’ last meeting was a 37-35 Carolina win in Tallahassee. As mentioned, UNC’s rush defense has not been a strength recently and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook may be the best in the country at running the ball. The Noles are dripping with talent on both sides of the ball and if they can get solid quarterback play, Florida State will most certainly be a Playoff contender.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.