Coming off a phenomenal 2015 that saw them win the Coastal and come within an onside kick of a potential playoff birth, the North Carolina Tar Heels followed up with a fairly disappointing 2016, going 8-5 and falling to Stanford in their bowl game. Now, the Heels enter 2017 after having lost most of their core contributors from those teams in what looks to be a crowded ACC Coastal Division. Miami and UNC have been ACC Coastal rivals since Miami joined the ACC and have played every year since 2004, with the all-time series favoring North Carolina at 11-9.
In 2017, the Canes head to Chapel Hill looking for revenge from last years 20-13 loss to the Tar Heels in Miami.
(If you’d like a more technically sound look at what North Carolina brings to the table, check out Justin Dottavio’s piece on the X’s and O’s of this matchup.)
North Carolina In a Nutshell
Larry Fedora enters his 6th season as UNC’s commander-in-chief and has amassed a respectable 40-25 career record with the Tar Heels. He won the aforementioned Coastal title in 2015 and has taken the Heels to bowl games in 4 straight seasons, an impressive feat considering he inherited a program that was tainted by the academic scandal left in Butch Davis’ wake.
In order to reach a bowl for the 5th straight season, though, Fedora will have his work cut out for him. The offense will essentially require a total rehauling, after losing most of their offensive production to the NFL Draft and graduation. The defense will have a new coach running things after Gene Chizik stepped down as defensive coordinator to spend more time with his family, but that might not be an altogether bad thing; the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 227.3 rushing yards per game and finished 63rd in FBS in total defense during 2016.
Typically known for their high-octane offense, Fedora and offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic want to spread you out and take advantage of the holes created in the defense. And while the Tar Heels lost a lot of firepower from a season ago, Fedora’s biggest challenge this season will be to find a way to improve a 8 win team that lost what the NFL considered the best passer in college football last season, #2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky.
Enter Brandon Harris, who comes to UNC as a grad transfer after losing his starting job at LSU to a Purdue cast-off (yikes). Despite his strong arm, Harris’ time with the Tigers would, at best, be described as inconsistent, as he seemed to struggle with decision making and properly reading defenses. Fedora is one of the better QB-friendly head coaches in the business though and he’ll look to take Harris’ passing to the next level while still taking advantage of Harris’ dual-threat abilities.
As if fixing his wonky mechanics wasn’t difficult enough, Harris will have to rejuvenate his career with a host of inexperienced weapons. To give you an idea of just how much North Carolina’s personnel has been turned over, the Tar Heels lost 99% of their rushing yards and 71% of their receiving yards from last season’s team. The Tar Heels lose their top 3 receivers from 2016 and senior Austin Proehl (yes that Proehl - son of Ricky) is the only player on the roster with more than 275 career receiving yards. Joining Proehl catching passes will be redshirt freshman Roscoe Johnson, fall camp phenom Devin Perry, and converted quarterback Anthony Ratliff-Williams. In the backfield, Elijah Hood and TJ Logan were a dynamic 1-2 punch that Fedora could always rely on. Now, only sophomore Jordon Brown returns from last year’s running back stable, with Auburn grad transfer Stanton Truitt looking to provide depth.
Like the rest of the offense, the UNC offensive line will be heavily dependent on grad transfers. The Tar Heels will welcome Cam Dillard from Florida and Khaliel Rodgers from USC as both look to recapture the magic that made them highly pursued road-graders out of high school. Anchoring them will be star Bentley Spain, a 4th year starter at left tackle with length and athleticism. Spain is a 6’6 300 pound behemoth that carries NFL hopes into his senior season; he’s currently rated as a 3rd-5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by Walter Football.
After Chizik’s departure, UNC decided to promote internally, giving linebackers coach John Papuchis a shot at DC. While the same basic 4-3 scheme remains, the Tar Heels will hope the defense can experience different results from a 2016 unit that was the weak link of the team.
On the line, junior DE Malik Carney is a year older and back with a vengeance after leading the Heels with 5.5 sacks in 2016; he’ll look to make a leap to double digits this season. UNC also returns its top five linebackers, led by the hard-hitting Andre Smith, a junior. Papuchis hopes this experience in the front 7 will help to improve a porous run defense that was gashed by opposing ball carriers last season.
While UNC’s will be looking to enhance their much maligned front 7, their secondary is the opposite of problematic; the DB’s were the strength of last year’s defense and North Carolina was 12th in the nation in passing defense. Senior M.J. Stewart returns as one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks and was recently named to the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award, given to the best DB in America. Opposite Stewart, junior Corey Bell Jr. has been a lockdown corner so far in fall practice and behind them waiting to lay the hammer will be senior safety Donnie Miles.
By nature, the Coastal is extremely unpredictable; there has been a different winner every season since 2010-2011. However, UNC will need to find playmakers on offense, and fast, to have a chance at the division title and beating the Canes in 2017.
Miami’s plan of attack in this game (and every game really) will be to feed Mark Walton and pound a suspect UNC front 7. Without their usual explosive offense to rely on, UNC will likely struggle to keep up against a ferocious Hurricane defense that will look to hound Brandon Harris back to his mistake-prone ways. The Tar Heels have talent, no doubt about it, but we see Miami coming into Chapel Hill and avenging their losses from the past 2 seasons. Mark us down for 27-13, Miami.