The Tar Heels of North Carolina started about as poorly as the Aztecs did last year. The boys in blue lost five of their first six games by an average margin of 12.6 points. But, once again like SDSU, the Tar Heels turned it around quickly and won six of their last seven games, including a 39-17 domination of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Both ESPN and Bleacher Report rank North Carolina in their way-too-early Top 25s, and ESPN ranks the Tar Heels 19th in its 2014 Preseason Football Power Index. The Aztecs have made it clear they want tough opponents and have scheduled them through the 2022 season. Well, they'll definitely play a tough opponent in North Carolina on September 6.
Here's what you need to know about the Chapel Hill squad.
Coach: Larry Fedora. This will be Fedora's third season at North Carolina after coaching Southern Mississippi for four years. Fedora has never coached a college team that finished with a losing record. He drew North Carolina's attention when he led the Southern Miss Golden Eagles to a 12-2 record, a Conference USA championship and a No. 20 AP ranking in 2011, and he led to Tar Heels to a share of the ACC Coastal Division title in his first season at UNC. Calling Fedora an offensive guru wouldn't be hyperbolic: his two North Carolina teams have broken over 40 school records since he became head coach.
Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Coastal Division
Schedule/Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
|at No. 6 South Carolina||L 27-10|
|Middle Tennessee||W 40-20|
|at Georgia Tech||L 28-20|
|East Carolina||L 55-31|
|at Virginia Tech||L 27-17|
|No. 10 Miami (FL)||L 27-23|
|Boston College||W 34-10|
|at NC State||W 27-19|
|at Pitt||W 34-27|
|Old Dominion||W 80-20|
|No. 24 Duke||L 27-25|
|Cincinnati (Belk Bowl)||W 39-17|
Bowl game: Defeated Cincinnati (American Athletic Conference) 39-17 in the Belk Bowl.
Five key players:
QB Marquise Williams (6'2", 215 pounds) Junior
Williams was a catalyst for North Carolina's turnaround last year. In the team's first four games, Williams threw just one pass as backup quarterback: a 15-yard touchdown pass. However, Williams started the last five games after first-string quarterback Byrn Renner had season-ending shoulder surgery after the Tar Heels' victory against NC State. And Williams stepped up big time. He won four of five games, completing 57 percent of his passes for 1,161 yards for seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran the ball 61 times for 335 yards and five touchdowns. Playing his first full season as starter in Coach Fedora's well-oiled offensive machine, the dual-threat Williams could very well break out as an ACC Player of the Year candidate.
RB Elijah Hood (6'0", 221 pounds) Freshman
A high school standout with a 4.48 40-yard dash, Hood elected to play for his hometown UNC Tar Heels over the multitudes of schools that came calling, including Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, South Carolina, Stanford and USC. The Tar Heels had no strong running back last year. In fact, Williams was the team's leading rusher. However, Hood could change that. Hood may be the perfect running back complement to Williams this season, perhaps combining to form a devastating run-option attack. There's really only one question with this seemingly young Adrian Peterson: how good can he be? Check out his senior year highlights from Charlotte Catholic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, courtesy of Hudl.
WR Quinshad Davis (6'4", 205 pounds) Junior
Williams can be great, but he'll need a reliable target to replace tight end Eric Ebron as his best friend downfield. Enter, Quinshad Davis. With his height and speed, Davis beat his man last season 48 times for 730 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was a consistent big-play threat, averaging 15.2 receiving yards per game. He's a play-maker who can get open on a broken play, somewhat like a Mike Evans for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. I can see him playing that role for Williams next season at UNC.
The whole offensive line
Yes, the Williams-Hood-Davis trio could lead this Tar Heel offense to be something truly special. BUT. (There's always a "but" isn't there?) As we all know, an offense is only as good as its offensive line. UNC's O-line was fantastic last year, allowing just 11 sacks in 12 regular season games, good for ninth-best in the country. But the Tar Heels lose two key pieces in center Russell Bodine and left tackle James Hurst. If Fedora and company replace those two and replicate the O-line performance from last season, the ACC better watch out.
LB Travis Hughes (6'2", 225 pounds) Senior
Defense is the big question mark for North Carolina this season. The Tar Heels finished eighth in the ACC in yards allowed and last in rushing yards allowed. I've always been a fan of the notion that the linebacker is the quarterback of the defense--the leader, the player that has the biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball. Hughes recorded 76 tackles last season but recorded no interceptions or forced fumbles/fumble recoveries. And off-the-field issues surrounding an altercation with a campus parking attendant led to a suspension from team activities after last season. If UNC's defense is to sure up this year, Hughes needs to improve as a leader on and off the field.
Dual-threat quarterback? Check. Big-time running back recruit? Check. Solid wide receiving core with a strong leader? Check. Ability to put it all together for a successful season? Unknown. Big 3s and Big 4s and Big Whatevers abound in sports, but not every one has success. In fact, most fail. North Carolina certainly has most the pieces for an ACC-leading offense, but only time will tell if they can mesh well and produce wins. Especially with a offensive line that's still a question mark.
Defense will be North Carolina's weak link this year. A good chunk of the defensive starters return next year, so you'd think the defense should improve. But improving upon last year's production still won't produce a scary defense. The Tar Heels do lose a few key pieces, including Jabari Price and Tre Boston in the secondary, but look strong at the linebacker position (see Travis Hughes). Put it this way: the Tar Heels won't be terrible defensively, but opposing offenses definitely won't be shaking in their cleats.
This should be a great game. SDSU's strong run defense (21st fewest rush yards per game allowed in 2013) will battle hard against Hood, and Kaehler and Ruffin should have a field day in the UNC secondary. However, even though Athlon Sports' Preseason All-MWC First Team cornerback J.J. Whittaker returns for the Aztecs, Williams should play very well against a weak SDSU secondary. I give the advantage to the home team. UNC 34 SDSU 28