M.J. Stewart and the Tar Heels have a tough October slate with Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Miami all on tap
In college football, you can have a difficult schedule because you play some of the top-ranked teams in the land. But you can also have a difficult slate by facing quality opponents each week with very few easy games during the course of the year.
The latter is what makes North Carolina’s 2017 football schedule a bit daunting. Larry Fedora's Tar Heels open with a Power Five team and then face the 2016 Heisman winner in week two in an ACC crossover game. And don't let the lack of Top 25-caliber teams in the Coastal Division take away from its overall depth.
Here is a ranking of the toughest games for UNC this season.
12. Nov. 18 vs. Western Carolina
The Catamounts somehow gave South Carolina a game in their 2016 season finale. But they went 2-9 on the year and will be looking forward to the offseason by the time they get to Chapel Hill.
11. Oct. 14 vs. Virginia
It is only year two for Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but it’s an important campaign coming off of last year’s 2-10 finish. The Cavaliers have two defensive stars in Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding, but offensively there is little reason for optimism.
10. Sept. 16 at Old Dominion
This is not as easy as it looks. This will be the biggest home game ever at ODU and the crowd will be ready, especially if the Monarchs come into the game 2-0. UNC has had trouble stopping the run in recent years and Old Dominion’s Ray Lawry posted 1,255 rushing yards in 2016 with reserve Jeremy Cox chipping in 732.
9. Sept. 23 vs. Duke
The Blue Devils were not happy with their 4-8 record last fall. Which means that head coach David Cutcliffe’s team will probably rebound in 2017. He does have an up and coming quarterback in Daniel Jones.
8. Sept. 2 vs. California
The Tar Heels need to replace Mitchell Trubisky; the Bears won’t have Davis Webb around as well. In an intriguing Pac 12 vs. ACC season opener, UNC has the advantage of an established coaching staff and home field.
7. Nov. 9 at Pittsburgh
Thursday night games on the road are always tough. In this case, though, North Carolina has the previous week off. Pitt’s success this fall will hinge on how well head coach Pat Narduzzi can shore up the defense and how graduate transfer quarterback Max Browne gels with the offense.
6. Oct. 21 at Virginia Tech
The Hokies lose a considerable amount of talent off last year’s Coastal Division champs. But defensive coordinator Bud Foster still has plenty of talent to work with and head coach Justin Fuente knows how to build an offense. Plus, this one is at Lane Stadium.
5. Oct. 7 vs. Notre Dame
In reality, this game could be ranked much lower... or much higher. After their 4-8 debacle last year, will the Irish be focused to rebound or was 2016 a trend that will continue? Notre Dame has quality players and with Miami (Ohio) on tap the week before and an off week following, all the Irish’s attention will be on the Tar Heels.
4. Nov. 25 at NC State
After a four-game losing streak in the middle of last season, the Wolfpack rebounded to win three of their last four, including a victory in Chapel Hill on Thanksgiving weekend. NC State returns starting quarterback Ryan Finley and the makings of a nasty defensive front.
3. Sept. 30 at Georgia Tech
Over the past three seasons, North Carolina has finished 120th, 122nd and 109th in rushing defense, surrendering 238 yards per game on the ground. Those are not good numbers when facing a Paul Johnson offense.
2. Sept. 9 vs. Louisville
The Cardinals’ offensive line needs improvement and they lost a lot of offensive firepower and some playmakers on defense. But Lamar Jackson is back and that will be enough to make this a challenge for the Tar Heels.
1. Oct. 28 vs. Miami
Most expect the Hurricanes to be the best team in the Coastal Division thanks to the running of Mark Walton, the receiving of Ammon Richards, and a very athletic defense. If North Carolina has any thoughts of contending for a spot in the ACC title game, it must take care of business at home.
— 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.