North Carolina

What to expect for UNC football during 2017 season. A game-by-game look.

North Carolina begins the 2017 season on Saturday at Kenan Stadium against California. It represents the start of a season that, for the Tar Heels, appears as difficult to project as any during Larry Fedora’s head coaching tenure, which is entering its sixth season.

For the first time since Fedora arrived in 2012, UNC’s strength appears to be its defense. The offense, meanwhile, lost so many pieces from last season that Fedora has said he’s never experienced a similarly challenging rebuilding project.

Few people seem to know what to expect out of UNC – and especially out of its offense – and Fedora and his staff are included in that number. They don’t have much of an idea, either, and might not until the Tar Heels have played a game or two.

The start of the season on Saturday will give us an idea of where things stand, and a clue about whether UNC looks more like an 8-win team (or better) or a 6-win team (or worse). Those numbers, for now, appear to be on either side of the line of demarcation.

An “average” season – one in which UNC is no better or worse than most people predict – would be seven wins. That’s not an opinion, necessarily, but what the Las Vegas oddsmakers determined when they placed the Tar Heels’ over/under win total right at seven.

Video: UNC head coach Larry Fedora talks about starting quarterback prospects after the Tar Heels practice at Kenan Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 24.

Eight regular-season wins, then, would be a “good” season, and nine victories, or more, could be a great season, given all the questions surrounding the Tar Heels. Can they get there? Here’s a game-by-game look at UNC’s path during the regular season, and the likely outcome (as it stands now) for each game:

Sept. 2 vs. California

It’s strange to think of a season-opener against a non-conference opponent as a must-win but, well, it sort of is for the Tar Heels if only because it’s difficult to envision a successful season (or even bowl eligibility, potentially) without a victory against Cal. This is a Cal team, by the way, that shares a lot of similarities with UNC. Both teams are breaking in new starters at quarterback. Both teams face uncertainty along the offensive line. Both teams lost a receiver named Bug. Both teams, because of their questions on offense, will need to rely on their defenses, especially early in the season. On its way to a 5-7 finish last season, Cal didn’t win a single road game. If that changes on Saturday, UNC could be in real trouble.

Likely result: UNC should win

Sept. 9 vs. Louisville

On one team, you have one of the most dynamic players in college football: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy last season. On the other, you have a yet-to-be-named quarterback who will, presumably, be making his second start at UNC. The Tar Heels’ offenses of the recent past would have provided the Cardinals’ defense with all it could handle. But that was then and this is now, and if UNC somehow finds a way against Louisville, then the Tar Heels’ potential immediately rises (assuming they defeated Cal the week before).

Likely result: UNC should lose

Sept. 16 at ODU

The last time these teams played, in 2013, UNC set a school record for points during an 80-20 victory. Since then, ODU has moved from Division I-AA to I-A (or from FCS to FBS, if you prefer). Last season was ODU’s third since the move up, and it went 10-3 (with one of the losses a 49-22 defeat at N.C. State). ODU is better than it was, and it’s a contender in Conference USA, and, undoubtedly, its players and supporters will be excited to host the Tar Heels. That said, any Power 5 conference team that has recruited reasonably well – and UNC has – should expect to win a game like this. Plenty of stranger things have happened, though.

Likely result: UNC should win

Sept. 23 vs. Duke

Between 1990 and 2011, UNC went 22-1 against Duke. The rivalry between these schools, as fierce as it is in other sports, was completely non-existent – at least in the competitive sense – in football. Since then, starting in 2012, the Blue Devils have won three of the past five games, including a 28-27 comeback victory a season ago on a Thursday night in Durham, where the Tar Heels seemingly went into hibernation after building an early lead. UNC is (probably) the more talented team, but you could have argued the same in 2012, 2013 and last year (especially last year), and Duke won all of those games.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC victory

Sept. 30 at Georgia Tech

The Tar Heels have beaten the Yellow Jackets in each of the past three years. That’s UNC’s longest winning streak in this series since it won three in a row from 1992 to 1994. The Tar Heels haven’t won four consecutive games against Georgia Tech since winning five in a row from 1980-84. The game last season between these teams, a 48-20 UNC victory in Chapel Hill, wasn’t competitive. That makes it an outlier among recent games in this series. The Tar Heels’ comeback in Atlanta in 2015 remains one of the most memorable victories of Fedora’s tenure. UNC hasn’t won back-to-back games at Georgia Tech since 1981 and 1983.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC loss

Oct. 7 vs. Notre Dame

It’s always an event when Notre Dame comes to town, and so it will be in Chapel Hill in early October. The Fighting Irish were bad a season ago, though probably not as bad as their 4-8 finish suggests. Notre Dame lost seven of those eight games by eight points or fewer, and lost four of those games by three points or fewer. Along the way, the Fighting Irish lost against Duke and N.C. State (in the deluge amid he remnants of Hurricane Matthew) by a combined 10 points. (UNC lost against those teams by a combined eight points, by the way.) Speaking of teams whose fortunes this season will be difficult to project, Notre Dame has to be up there, given the close losses from last season and the coaching changes that ensued. The Fighting Irish do return the majority of its starters on offense and defense.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC loss

Oct. 14 vs. Virginia

Between 1998 and 2009, UNC beat Virginia exactly twice. Since 2010, the Tar Heels have won seven consecutive in the series, known as The Oldest Rivalry in the South. These schools have been playing football against each other annually since 1892. Only two other times has a UNC winning streak grown as long as it is now: when it won eight in a row from 1933 to 1940, and when it won nine in a row from 1974 to 1982. There’s little reason to expect the Tar Heels’ streak to end this season, though this is as vulnerable as the Tar Heels have been in a while.

Likely result: UNC should win

Oct. 21 at Virginia Tech

Two years ago, UNC spoiled Frank Beamer’s going-away party and, in the process, won the Atlantic Division championship during an overtime victory at Virginia Tech. Last year, the Hokies took some measure of revenge with a decisive, rain-soaked victory amid the remnants of Hurricane Matthew. There is growing hostility among the fans of these schools and, perhaps, between the programs themselves. The Hokies, like the Tar Heels, have much to replace on offense. But the defense, especially the secondary, should be very good, and has the potential to be among the ACC’s best.

Likely result: UNC should lose

Oct. 28 vs. Miami

Since Connor Barth’s kick sailed through the uprights, giving UNC a 31-28 victory against Miami in 2004, the Tar Heels are 7-6 against the Hurricanes (including that 2004 victory). The series has taken on a strange feel in recent years, with both teams trading lopsided victories in 2014 and 2015, before UNC’s 20-13 victory last season at Miami. One of these years, you’d think, Miami will realize its potential and win the Coastal Division. And yet it hasn’t happened yet, 12 years after the Hurricanes joined the ACC. This year, the timing seems right. The division is wide open, as usual, and Miami returns as much talent as any team in it, though – like several of its Coastal opponents – it does have to replace a talented quarterback.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC loss

Nov. 9 at Pittsburgh

Since joining the ACC before the start of the 2013 season, Pitt has never beaten UNC. Yet the Tar Heels’ four victories in that span have come by a total of 20 points. These are victories that have all been close, settled by Ryan Switzer’s punt return heroics in 2013, and by Mitch Trubisky’s last-second touchdown pass to Bug Howard a season ago. These games have, in other words, often been close, entertaining affairs (unless, perhaps, you’re a Pitt fan). The Panthers lost a lot from a season ago, both offensively and defensively, and skeptics are doubting Pitt the way many of them are doubting UNC.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC win

Nov. 18 vs. Western Carolina

The lone I-AA (or, FCS, if you prefer) team on UNC’s schedule, the Tar Heels have placed this game in an ideal spot – right before their regular-season finale at N.C. State. If UNC is banged and bruised by this time of the season, and just about every team is in mid-November, this should allow the Tar Heels an opportunity to become healthier.

Likely result: UNC should win

Nov. 25 at N.C. State

What to make of this rivalry in recent years? Fedora is 3-2 against N.C. State, but the two defeats have both been at home, and have both been quite disappointing. Last year, the Wolfpack spoiled UNC’s quest for a nine-win season with a 28-21 victory at Kenan Stadium. Two years before that, in 2014, UNC’s ugly regular season ended with a dreadful 35-7 home loss against the Wolfpack. But in between those games, UNC put on a show (especially in the first quarter) during its 45-34 victory in Raleigh in 2015. The home team hasn’t won in this series since UNC’s victory in 2012. Perhaps that bodes well for the Tar Heels entering Carter-Finely Stadium this year. On the other hand, N.C. State is expecting to have its best team in years, while UNC enters the season with considerably more questions.

Likely result: toss-up, leaning UNC loss

So there you have it: four games UNC should win (California, ODU, Virginia, Western Carolina), two games it should lose (Louisville, Virginia Tech) and six toss-ups, four of which probably most favor the Tar Heels’ opponent. Add it up, and that translates into a 6-6 season, with the potential for eight wins (or more) on the high end, and five wins, or fewer, on the low end. Entering the season, that old coaching cliché comes to mind: the next game, for UNC, really is the most important game. A defeat in the opener against California, and the Tar Heels’ margin for error shrinks considerably.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

Cal at UNC

When: 12:20 p.m., Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill

TV: WRAL

Radio: WTKK-106.1, WCHL-1360, 97.9

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