Tar Heel fans have not been this excited about football season since Mack Brown was in Chapel Hill. With a defense that may be the best in the nation, head coach Butch Davis has his first legitimate chance to get UNC in the ACC title game.
To find out more about what we can expect from North Carolina, I contacted Michael Felder who is an avid Carolina fan and writer for In The Bleachers.
Q: UNC is getting a lot of preseason hype with some calling for the Tar Heels to win the ACC this year. How are the fans handling the expectations?
A: I think the fan reaction to expectations depends upon the "tier" of UNC fan that folks fall into.
The lower tier, the basketball front runners that we've all encountered, read the hype and assume, much like in basketball that everything is 100% true and we should have a walk to an ACC Title and BCS bowl. In a word, unrealistic.
The next tier of fans are the basketball only or basketball first folks who either don't care about football or just automatically assume we'll never be worth their time in football. Pessimistic and skeptical at best, cancerous at worst.
Lastly we arrive at the genuine UNC fan, folks who know the team's make up, read more than just headlines and are truly looking forward to September. We're taking it in stride; the hype is warranted as this is a BCS caliber group but expectations are tempered because the schedule is littered with toss up games that could go either way.
Q: Is QB TJ Yates ready to lead UNC to an ACC title after his struggles a year ago or could a backup unseat him?
A: Plenty of folks have been tooting the Brynn Renner horn, however it will be mid-season before Butch pulls a trigger of that magnitude. Davis was burned once by inserting a young, inexperienced quarterback too early (2008 Mike Paulus) and I doubt he'll risk losing a game while ruining a career in the process.
TJ Yates has already led; he's the same kid who set UNC freshman records for passing yards, completions and attempts, the same kid who was throwing bombs to Nicks and Tate just over a season ago.
As long as he's not on his back, concussed or under duress every play I'd say yeah, he's ready.
Q: Who needs to step on offense to improve this unit and help out the QB?
A: Less about a "person" and more about group; wide receivers to be specific. The WR's were very young a season ago and couldn't get open down field or comprehend the offensive scheme.
This year they should have a better understanding of the offensive concepts and become more reliable targets down field.
Q: Last year the offensive line was depleted by injuries. How is the unit shaping up this year?
A: This is going to be the best North Carolina offensive line since the Mack Brown era and I'm not afraid to say it. This group went through a trial by fire a season ago; injuries, shuffling of lineups and shifting of positions.
upright as well as paving the way for [Shawn] The 2010 Road Hogs will reap the benefits of last years tough times as eight players with significant playing or starting experience return to the group. Throw these seasoned veterans in with newcomer, five star tackle James Hurst, and they should do a better job of keeping TJDraughn and [Ryan] Houston.
Q: The defense is loaded with talent this year, but if there is a weak spot where do you think it is?
A: The secondary? Not because the group isn't among the nation's elite, they definitely are but rather because they lack the depth and top end talent that the defensive line and linebackers possesses.
The DL and LB groups are loaded with elite recruits, frequently rotate in and out while the defensive backs are largely a four-man unit.
This aggressive unit isn't built to play man to man every snap but this unit should be able to take advantage of mistakes and avoid covering receivers for an extended period of time thanks to the defensive line.
Q: Which of the freshman that could see significant playing time this year
A: James Hurst, Brandon Willis, Giovanni Bernard and Jared McAdoo. Hurst and Bernard can have instant impacts on the offensive side of the ball while McAdoo and Willis have the chance to be key spot contributors on defense.
Hurst is already penciled in to start at one of the tackle spots as Carl Gaskins attempts to return from an ACL injury. Bernard is the home run hitting running back that UNC has lacked for quite some time now. Look for him to be active in the screen game, jet sweeps and reverse action.
Due to UNC's loaded defense the young defenders will have a different impact on the game.
Look for Willis to be a player on passing downs from the defensive tackle position, a kid who is athletic and can rush the passer from the interior. McAdoo is a true defensive tackle and he'll push Tydreke Powell and Marvin Austin as he becomes a fixture, along with Jordan Nix, in the defensive tackle rotation.
Q: The Heels start the season off against SEC powerhouse LSU. What do you think UNC needs to do to pull off the win for the ACC?
A: First and foremost I don't think this is an upset scenario for the Heels. That being said I think the key to this game will be turnovers.
Between Jordan Jefferson and TJ Yates you've got two much maligned signal callers who need a solid game to gain their respective fanbase’s faith. Whichever of these quarterbacks can throw the ball to their same colored jerseys will emerge victorious in my estimation.
I'd give UNC the edge because while LSU has got tons of talent and, arguably, the best returning player in the nation in Patrick Peterson they also have plenty of inexperience on both sides of the ball.
Q: Next, North Carolina starts the ACC season after a bye with a home date against Georgia Tech looking to snap a nine game ACC opener losing streak. Will the outcome of this game define the Tar Heels ACC title hopes?
A: No, because as you stated we've lost nine ACC openers in a row so I think the team is capable of recovering. However, in a bigger sense I think having a bye week means that we should break that cycle and beat GT for the second time in a row in Chapel Hill.
The game is crucial because we've got to hold serve at home, Florida State and Miami on the road don't leave much wiggle room for home losses late or early in the season and GT off of a bye week is a must win for the Heels to stay in ACC title contention.
Q: NC State has won 3 games in a row vs UNC. Is this the most important game of the season?
A: For me, as a guy who openly and unabashedly hates North Carolina State, the State game is one that I circle preseason every year. Losing three in a row to the Wolfpack has been tough to digest and that is always an important rivalry game.
I wouldn't call the NC State game the most important game of the year though, unless losing to them keeps us out of the ACC Championship Game.
Q: What would make this a good season? What would make it a bad season?
A: For the Heels to have a good season there needs to be some improvement including a winning record in the ACC (5-3) and a bowl win in a game not in Charlotte after three straight losses at that site.
I'm thinking 9-3 is acceptable as long as one of the three is not to UVA or North Carolina State the Heels two biggest rivals who are both struggling.
A bad season would be a regression on the Heels' part. That means 7-5 or worse, dropping games to both UVA and NC State, again, and dropping below .500 in the ACC.
Q: What is your prediction for the season?
A: The Heels should go 9-3 this season with a shot at “Sakerlina” in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Years Eve in their second trip to Atlanta.
Wins over Rutgers, ECU, UVA, William & Mary, NC State and Duke. Then going at least 3-3 against the likes of LSU, GT, VT, FSU, Clemson and Miami.
The bad thing about UNC's schedule is there are no "certain" losses however at least half of schedule are the dreaded "toss up" games that UNC will have to play their A-game to come out victorious.
My take on UNC…
This is the season Tar Heel fans have waited for over a decade. The defense should be lights out and the best in the ACC.
However, I think their season will ultimately hinge on the play of Yates at QB and those crucial toss up games Michael mentioned.
Having a bye week after LSU and before Georgia Tech is huge. The Heels will be beat up after playing the Tigers and an extra week always helps against a spread option attack.
As great of a recruiter as Butch Davis is, I am not sold on him as a gameday coach. His ACC record in his first three seasons is the same as the last three for the man he replaced, John Bunting.
North Carolina may very well be the favorite if they played in the Atlantic Division, but they play in arguably the toughest division in the country this season.
I see UNC’s offense letting them down in a game or two and getting out coached in another.
Prediction: 8-4, 4th in Coastal Division
Thanks again to Michael for his insight. Check him out at In The Bleachers.