USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
It's not like North Carolina turned over a new leaf, found itself, discovered a winning formula or unearthed the secrets of life, though the standings – from 1-5 to 7-6 – do manage to suggest otherwise.
It's a far more simple solution than that: UNC simply stopped playing good teams and started playing bad teams.
Last season's first half featured a murderer's row of six bowl teams, from those of the title-contender variety – South Carolina – to those of the better-than-you-think variety – East Carolina – to those of the more mundane six-plus-wins variety – Miami (Fla.), Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. As such, the Tar Heels stumbled to five losses in six tries.
The second half was kinder: Boston College, North Carolina State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion and Duke. It's fitting that UNC played one team of consequence, Duke, and lost.
Yet some things did change. One was at quarterback: Marquise Williams stepped in for Bryn Renner and carried the offense to new heights, providing dual-threat flexibility to an offense lacking in balance. The defense stepped forward, holding five November opponents to just 4.82 yards per play – a full-season total that would've ranked third in the ACC and 13th nationally, a step ahead of Alabama.
The hope is that UNC has turned the corner, but that viewpoint demands a balancing act. Yes, the Heels feasted on the weak, putting an asterisk on the strong close; at the same time, this same formula – offensive synchrony and equilibrium, defensive fortitude at the point of attack – would serve UNC well if duplicated, perhaps allowing Larry Fedora's third team to take that long-gestating step from could-be contender to should-be divisional champion.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
While not the most popular take, I don't think UNC makes a huge improvement upon last season's finish, instead hovering between seven and nine wins during the regular season.
In a nutshell: UNC went 4-6 against bowl teams, counting a postseason victory against Cincinnati. That must improve, obviously. Perhaps the season rolls differently if the schedule had been reversed, with the easy second half stepping for a decidedly difficult first half; perhaps, if so, UNC rebounds to win nine games during the regular season. I can buy this, but only at half price: UNC had its flaws, weaknesses that lingered for much of the year, but there's no question a flipped schedule would've led to an uptick in the win column. As is, the Heels had to settle for a renewed sense of purpose, a strengthened mentality and the sort of confidence-building close that carried into a strong offseason.
High point: Turning things around in the second half, with added points for victories against Boston College and Pittsburgh.
Low point: The start was tough, true, but UNC could've salvaged the year by beating Duke in the regular-season finale.
Tidbit: Since the move to a 12-game schedule in 2006, only six teams have rebounded from a 1-5 start to reach bowl eligibility: Rice in 2006, Louisiana-Monroe in 2007, Rutgers and Florida Atlantic in 2008, Rice in 2012 and UNC in 2013.
Tidbit (streak edition): UNC's five-game winning streak was the program's first since 2001. The Heels haven't won six in a row since 1997, when they claimed the year's first eight games under Mack Brown.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Men's basketball favorites, 2014-15
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The offensive line loses a significant amount of experience without center Russell Bodine and left tackle James Hurst, the latter owner of the longest consecutive starting streak in program history. It's time to rebuild, with special emphasis on the blind side. Hurst's spot was filled after spring drills by sophomore John Ferranto, last year's understudy, but he'll have his hands full this month with junior Kiaro Holts, redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and true freshman Bentley Spain, who enrolled early. The transition at center should be smoother: Lucas Crowley, a sophomore, made a start inside last fall against Pittsburgh – and it's all downhill if you can survive in the trenches against Aaron Donald. The returning starters include junior right guard Landon Turner, sophomore left guard Caleb Patterson and sophomore right tackle Jon Heck, with Heck set for a nice second season after struggling in the of start his college career.
The Tar Heels will use at least three and as many four backs in the run-game rotation. The leader is sophomore T.J. Logan (533 yards), who came strong to close his debut season; Logan gained 361 yards in UNC's final four games. That sets him up as the top option, though I imagine the staff will continue alternating junior Romar Morris (296 yards) and sophomore Khris Francis (236 yards) into the mix as Logan's reserves. The wildcard would be true freshman Elijah Hood, a five-star recruit who enrolled in time for spring drills. Though working from behind the curve, Hood could conceivably carve out a spot in the second half of the rotation. Having said that, I get the feeling Hood ends up either running fourth for the entire year or not breaking through until the second half of the season.
Eric Ebron's early departure stings, as you might expect, seeing that it robs UNC of that rare-breed tight end capable of stretching the field and serving as an intermediate target on first, second and third down. Jack Tabb will get the nod as his successor … but the Heels need to find a way to replicate Ebron's production from the traditional receiver corps. It's a deep group: Quinshad Davis (48 receptions for 730 yards), Ryan Switzer (32 for 341), T.J. Thorpe (24 for 267) and Jonathan Howard (22 for 278) are young but proven, balancing solid experience with impressive potential. What the group needs beyond help at tight end – help that's not really coming – is another two or three receivers in reserve, so Kendrick Singleton, Damien Washington and three incoming freshmen must make the most of fall camp.
Defense: UNC remains hopeful that last season's defensive surge carries over to the fall, giving the Heels the sort of offense-defense balance needed to not just claim the Coastal Division but potentially hang with Florida State or Clemson – well, Florida State – in the conference title game. In specific, the staff is hopeful a reworked, retooled, largely inexperienced and somewhat star-free defensive front can carry the load throughout ACC play. My biggest concern is depth: UNC returns senior Ethan Farmer on the nose and has junior Justin Thomason ready to go at tackle, but the offseason departures of Greg Webb and Shawn Underwood leave the Heels very thin in the middle.
It's clear that Farmer and Thomason will have play extensive snaps ahead of senior Devonte Brown and redshirt freshman Nazir Jones, the projected backups; with this much activity comes concerns that the Heels' run defense will collapse in the second half. At the traditional end spot, don't be surprised in UNC essentially rotates junior Jessie Rogers, sophomore Junior Gnonkonde and redshirt freshman Dajuan Drennon, with Rogers and Gnonkonde leading the charge. Another option would be shifting Shakeel Rashad from the other side, but he'd be best used in a situational role; I'm not sure if he'd stand up well on clear running downs. The star of the bunch is a senior: Norkeithus Otis (49 tackles, 7.5 sacks) inhabits the defense's hybrid end-linebacker role, one that asks Otis to place in space but typically has him playing closer to the line of scrimmage. He'll be an all-conference pick.
There are no changes on the second level of the Heels' unorthodox 4-2-5 alignment – only additions, though that shouldn't change the starting lineup. Barring injury, UNC has the luxury of painting senior Travis Hughes (76 tackles, 5.5 for loss) into the weak side and junior Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles, 5.5 for loss) into the middle, confident that both will deliver on a weekly basis. One of the silver linings to Schoettmer's springtime injury is that it allowed UNC to give sophomores Dan Mastromatteo and Nathan Staub a chance to run with the first-team defense at middle linebacker; that won't hold come the season, but both seem ready to take on a larger role. Keep an eye on four-star freshman Tyrell Tomlin, who could conceivably start his career on the outside but eventually work his way into the middle.
The vast potential found in the secondary is tempered by an overall lack of experience; when the Heels' group gains experience, however, this defensive backfield will be one of the program's best in recent memory. It'll be about patience: UNC will start sophomores Brian Walker and Des Lawrence at cornerback and a third sophomore, Dominique Green (59 tackles, 3 interceptions), at strong safety – and depth across the board, at both cornerback and safety, comes primarily from freshman and sophomores. The lone senior on the entire two-deep is Tim Scott (49 tackles), who makes the permanent move from cornerback to free safety. He's one of three returning starters in the secondary, joining Green and hybrid Malik Simmons (47 tackles). In summation: UNC's secondary is a little dodgy today but built for the future.
Special teams: It took Switzer 13 games to become one of the most productive punt returners in college football history. After taking five punts to the end zone as a rookie, his encore presentation makes Switzer one of those rare can't-miss skill players in the country; worth the price of admission, for one, and worth delaying that trip to the fridge. While Switzer flips the field for the offense, punter Tommy Hibbard does the same for the defense: Hibbard, already one of the ACC's best, seems poised to battle for All-American honors as a senior.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Fedora seems serious about this quarterback competition. In one corner: Marquise Williams took over for Renner last November and fared well, clearly behind the curve as a passer but gifted enough as an athlete to give the offense a different dimension – and let's remember that it's long been Fedora's preference to have a dual-threat option under center. In the other: Mitch Trubisky, a high-end recruit who took a redshirt last fall. UNC split first-team touches between the pair during the spring and seems prepared to do so against in August, though Fedora would be wise not to drag this competition long into the month – he'd be smarter to make the call early, giving the starter time to develop a full-fledged rapport with the rest of his offense. My first thought is that it has to be Williams, who has the athletic gifts to grant some offensive balance; my second thought is that Fedora knows it should be Williams, but also believed an offseason of competition would bring out the most in the junior. Either way, rest assured on this: Fedora knows quarterbacks. I think he has a good one in Williams.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Duke: Unlike UNC, the Blue Devils don't draw Clemson out of the Atlantic Division – and don't play a team close to the quality of East Carolina, San Diego State and Notre Dame during the regular season. The two in-state rivals will still meet in late November with the Coastal Division on the line, in my estimation, and stand as the division's best heading into the opener.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: I have enough reservations about UNC to pick Duke to defend its Coastal Division title. Let's get that out of the way, painful as it may be. There are some issues here that are hard to overlook: Fedora's bunch has an unsettled quarterback situation, some holes along the offensive line, depth concerns on the defensive front and youthfulness in the secondary, a quartet of potential flaws that paints UNC as one of those close-but-no-cigar teams coming out of the ACC – good enough to notch double-digit wins, if the puzzle clicks into place, but questionable enough to end the year against around seven or eight wins, hovering around a national ranking but not quite in the national picture.
On paper, the quarterback competition looks like a bit of an issue. In reality, however, I trust in UNC's offensive approach from the position – and trust that Fedora will make the right decision and hand Williams the keys to the system. In all, I believe the offense will rediscover its 2012 form and play with greater consistency throughout the regular season, perhaps approaching the school record for points and yards per game. The bigger concern is the defense, with holes up front and inexperience deep, and the idea that this defense must be ready to handle Clemson, East Carolina, Notre Dame and Duke inside and out of ACC play.
Close, basically, but not yet. UNC needs to properly develop the youth on both sides before being viewed not just as the Coastal favorite – because the Heels are almost there already – but as a top-25 program, and the second step is the hardest. While I wouldn't be surprised if UNC does take the division – any one of four or five teams could conceivably win it – I do see at least three and likely four losses during the regular season: East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Duke will provide stern tests.
Dream season: UNC loses to Clemson and Notre Dame early but rolls through the rest of the schedule, earning a divisional title and a shot at Florida State for the ACC crown.
Nightmare season: New year, same story: UNC starts slow but cruises late, losing to Duke in November but winning seven games during the regular season.
Who's No. 26? This program is 6-3 since 2007 when throwing for four or more touchdowns.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1