After nearly a month of practices, suspensions, press conferences, injuries, and media scrums, the start of the 2018 football season is finally here. And after the summer the North Carolina football team as had, it must be a relief to finally get on the field.
Between the head coach becoming a headline during media days, a baker's dozen of players being suspended for selling Jordans, and preseason injuries to two key contributors from last year's team (Michael Carter and Aaron Crawford, as reported by Inside Carolina), it hasn't been the perfect start the Tar Heels needed coming off a 3-9 season.
There were positives throughout camp and fall practice, to be sure. Nathan Elliott looks and sounds confident at quarterback, and his teammates seem to trust him after getting named the starter in early August. Multiple true freshmen, including wideout Dyami Brown, running back Javonte Williams, and guard William Barnes, have jumped out as players that will make key contributions, and maybe even start the season opener in the case of Barnes. And with multiple skill players back, including Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Jordon Brown, Dazz Newsome, and Carl Tucker, the offense has the pieces to get back to the level folks have been acustomed to since Fedora got to Chapel Hill
Defensively, the units have had time to gel, from the Rude Boyz in the defensive backfield with K.J. Sails and Miles Dorn, to the "LB Brick squad!" with Johnathan Smith and Cole Holcomb, to a veteran defensive line led by Crawford, Jason Strowbridge, and Jalen Dalton. With plenty of experience on the field thanks to injuries from a season ago, the defense has the ability to get stops, and that may be enough to help this team bounce back.
But all that turmoil from the offseason still surrounds this team. Winnable games early in the season against Cal, ECU, UCF and Pitt get that much tougher with players like Malik Carney and Beau Corrales suspended. Then, even when they come back, how quickly will the units acclimate on game days to new pieces being shifted in and out?
The bright side is most of the suspended players weren't projected starters, but depth pieces, which makes things a little easier. And Carney and Tomon Fox get to play against Cal thanks to the NCAA approving staggered suspensions. But the Tar Heels didn't make anything easier for themselves regardless.
It creates a crossroads effect for UNC football, and more specifically, Larry Fedora. It's a program only three years removed from a Coastal division title and 11 wins. But the three wins last year, and 1-7 conference record, even with all the injuries, has worn out some of that good will that has been built up. UNC needs to make it back to a bowl, at minimum, to rebuild some confidence in a program that's currently getting trounced on the recruiting trail by local rivals.
Perhaps the best news for this team is that almost everything they need to have a successful season is within their grasp. Of the 12 games they play, the only game they're heavily favored to lose is a Thursday night road trip to Miami. In every other game, the Tar Heels are either favored or close enough in the spread it's essentially a tossup. With good execution and playcalling, an 8-4 or 9-3 season, or perhaps even more, isn't out of the realm of possibility.
But all those tossups make the margin of error super thin. Some bad luck here, some poor execution there, and all of sudden the Tar Heels are 4-8, the coaching staff is likely out of their jobs, and everyone is left wondering what in the world happened.
The Tar Heels are due for some good karma after last year's injury bug ravaged the team, and all the experience gained should help the team be more comfortable in high stakes situations that will pop up this season. But I'm personally not confident UNC will be able to overcome the self placed obstacles in their path.
That perception could change after Saturday, or a month from now. The team is so different from last year now that everyone's healthy that they could put on a show and build some momentum going into the long stretch of the season. But, as I said on the Heel Tough Blog Podcast in my season preview, until they take the field in Berkeley tomorrow afternoon, I won't hedge my bets.
Season Record Prediction: 5-7
Wins: @ECU, Pitt, @Cuse, GT, WCU
Losses: @Cal, UCF, @Miami, VT, @UVA, @Duke, State