I was rummaging through some old computer games I had when I came across a CD-ROM for EA Sports NCAA Football 1998. Since these titles are released based on the data from the previous season it included the 1997 version of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Oh what a sweet team that was. The 1997 Heels went 11-1 losing only to Florida State and trouncing Virginia Tech 42-10 in a New Year's Day Gator Bowl appearance. Of course the Gator Bowl victory was under the direction of Carl Torbush since Mack Brown had accepted the job at Texas and long since departed Chapel Hill. Unfortunately that first day of 1998 was the high point of UNC football in the last 20 years. Carl Torbush became head coach by default and the decline was prominent. In 1998 the Heels were 7-5 and won the Las Vegas Bowl but by 1999 they finished 3-8. 2000 was better at 6-5 but not enough to save Carl Torbush who was shown the door. Frank Beamer danced with UNC but only to get a better deal at VT. The result was a hire from "inside the family" in former UNC lineback John Bunting who had been coaching in the NFL without the benefit of college coaching experience.
Since I was 900 miles removed from North Carolina at the time I missed all of the local coverage and anlaysis. I remembered thinking what a bad hire this was and John Bunting did not seem like a coach I could get excited over. The program felt stalled at the .500/sub .500 level sentenced to spend the upcoming season wallowing in the middle to lower half of the ACC and maybe sweating out a bowl appearance every so often. Now as we begin the 2006 season we have had five seasons of Bunting ball, only one winning record in 2001 which included a bowl win. A second bowl appearance came in 2004 following an upset of Miami at Chapel Hill(turns out Miami was not as good as they were ranked at the time), then came a loss to future ACC school Boston College in the "Hey Let's Make Use of This NFL Stadium in Charlotte" Continental Tire Bowl. In between those two seasons were two losing records and just this past season UNC went 5-6 against a stiff out-of-conference schedule, beating NC State, but missing the bowl.
Five years and aside from a bowl win in 2001, an upset of Miami, and a 3-2 mark against NC State, UNC football has been about as exciting as a chess tournament. At this point is is difficult to muster any kind of passion because I suffer from the naggin sensation that when it is all said and done in December UNC will be 6-6 or 5-7 and if the former is true heading to a bowl game which no one really cares about. Essentially I have little optimism. Then again hope does spring eternal and since I am not ready to pen the "Fire John Bunting" post....yet, let me offer this fan's prediction on the upcoming season:
UNC is breaking in a new starting QB and has a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti. The candidates for the QB position are redshirt freshman Cameron Sexton and Joe Dailey, a transfer from a non-Tom Osbourne coached Nebraska. According to the News and Observer, the question of running a two QB system has come to light. UNC has done this in the past and because each of these guys bring something different to the table it may be a solution, at least until one emerges over the other:
In 2001, Bunting's only season over .500, the Tar Heels went 8-5 with the two-quarterback system. In 1997, the Heels went 11-1 with a rotation at quarterback.
Bunting insists that it will work again with Dailey, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior transfer from Nebraska, and Sexton, a 6-1, 191-pound redshirt freshman.
"We're not afraid to do it," Bunting said. "Would we rather have one? Sure. But they both have attributes to help you win football games."
Sexton, considered more of a pocket passer, has impressed the coaches
with his arm strength. Dailey, considered more of runner, has impressed with his
mobility. Dailey compared the situation to having two running backs -- a power
back and a third-down back.
So in other words it all comes down to how the offensive line performs. If the offensive line is decent and protects the pocket with a fair amount of consistency then you will probably rely on Sexton and Dailey both or just Sexton alone if he is hitting the receiver. If it turns out the OL is not up to the task then Dailey becomes a better option because he can probably do a better job escaping pressure. Then it could also come down to how the opponent's defense is responding. A weak defense upfront with a great seconday may force Bunting to rely on Dailey and the running game or if the reverse is true then Sexton's passing could be a plus. The down side to this arrangement is it has to be sorted out during live action and I still have little trust in Bunting's skill as a coach to do that effectively.
One plus for on offense is the return of three rushing backs: Ronnie McGill, Barrington Edwards and Cooter Arnold. So in one respect the QB position may be less crucial to offense since the Heels will look to run the ball most of the time. It also puts the question of OL effectiveness back in the spotlight since backs need holes to run through and if there is a defender waiting for you when the QB gives you the ball your yard totals are going to be low to say the least.
This should be the strength of this team and we all hope we do not see a repeat of the Louisville game this year. Lineback Larry Edwards looks to be the centerpiece of the defense. UNC also returns starters in the secondary. In other words the defense should be solid and needs to provide the offense with some cushion when you consider that running the ball really shortens the game, makes those games lower scoring, and puts pressure of the defense to not give up as many points. The offense is not high octane and with good depth upfront as well as experience at lineback and in the secondary, the defense should be able to keep the offense within striking distance.
Connor Barth returns as the kicker. He struck me as inconsistent last season but he also can hit some long field goals. I probably have more confidence in him than I do most any other kicker in college football(except for that kid at Colorado). As for the coverage teams, they have one job, and that is to not allow the other team to get crazy good field position or score. If the defense is doing it's job to keep the other team from scoring then the last thing you want is to give up one on special teams.
Not as difficult as last year in many respects but the OOC does include three bowl teams from 2005. He is a brief summary of how Tar Heel Fan thinks it will happens.
September 2nd, Rutgers, Chapel Hill, NC 3:30 PM on ABC
I honestly know very little about the Scarlet Knights other than the name of their mascot. They lost to Arizona St. in the Insight.com Bowl 45-40 to finish 7-5 overall. They are capable of putting up lots of yards and points on offense but also are capable of giving up the same amount meaning their game against Lousiville last season(56-5 loss) was very similar to the one UNC played. It would seem that UNC and Rutgers have opposite strengths which could lead to a tug of war. I think the Heels can pull this one out at home 24-21.
September 9th, Virginia Tech, Chapel Hill, NC, 12:00 PM on ESPN
I would not say UNC is without hope here. VT has their own problems and they are also breaking in a new felony-free QB. However, the Hokies just have too much talent, depth, and whatever else you have to be a winner not to mention a great coach. VT wins going away 31-10.
September 16th, Furman, Chapel Hill, NC, 7:00 PM on ESPNU(which no one has)
I do not care for playing against Division I-AA schools(and yes I hate the new designations which for I-A and I-AA and refuse to even Google them to find out exactly what they are so I can use them in this post) because it looks weak. Granted Furman is a good team but when it is all said and done your 6-6 mark is really 5-6 because you played a division down to get a win. Of course Furman fans will be all over me, assuming they know this blog exists, should UNC lose which I am not predicting. UNC wins 35-10.
September 23rd, Clemson, Clemson, SC, TBA
Clemson is actually the closet pick to win the ACC so there is no way UNC goes to Death Valley and walks away with anything resembling a win. Tigers roll 38-7.
October 7th, Miami(FL), Coral Gables, FL, TBA
At least UNC has a week to heal up from getting beaten by Clemson so they can go to Miami and get beaten again. And, no, I do not think UNC can beat Miami on a semi-regular basis like NC State can beat FSU unless we fire Bunting and get a Miami assistant to be the head coach. Miami wins 31-14.
October 14th, South Florida, Chapel Hill, NC, TBA
I know very little about South Florida other than they failed to score on NC State which was comical because even UNC scored 31 points on the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley no less. UNC should step up and get the job done because (1) They are at home (2) I think they match up to South Florida and (3) Any hope and I mean any hope of a bowl game rides on winning three of the four OOC games because there is no way in blue heaven you are winning at Notre Dame. UNC wins 21-13.
October 19th, Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 7:30 PM on ESPN
Two strikes against UNC already. First, this is a Thursday game and while I do not have a history of Thursday games involving UNC I am going on instinct that it is not a good mark. Secondly, UNC never wins at Virginia or so it seems. I mean Virginia could send out the Virginia AAAA state title team and UNC would find a way to lose at UVa. Of course this is an interesting position on my part since UNC actually leads the series by six wins. I guess I am still hung up on that 20-17 loss in 1996 in which UNC gave the game away in the final minutes. UNC did beat UVa on a pair of home runs by Matt Baker last year 7-5. I like their chances but I am still thinking Thursday night in Charlottesville is a bad combo. I call it UVa 23-20 in overtime.
October 28th, Wake Forest, Chapel Hill, NC, TBA
I am not spending anytime writing about this one. Wake is not a good team. UNC wins 37-14.
November 4th, Notre Dame, South Bend, IN, 2:30 PM on NBC
What were they thinking when they scheduled this one? I am all for a tough OOC schedule but playing the Irish in South Bend is a little like going to the dentist. You have an idea what is going to happen, you are sure you are not going to enjoy it, the only question is how bad will it be? I actually see some inkling of a chance. Notre Dame did not have a good defense last season which means the offense will not be totally handcuffed. UNC has a decent defense which might be enough to slow down the offensive juggernaut which is Notre Dame. Of course Charlie Weis, at least in the eyes of the media, is the full embodiment of all football knowledge which makes him and Mel Kiper the only two humans on the face of the planet who understand everything about the game of football so that alone is worth two touchdowns for Notre Dame. I probably should make it three given the gap between the two coaches here but I am feeling generous. Notre Dame wins 45-23.
November 11th, Georgia Tech, Chapel Hill, NC, TBA
GT has a great receiver in Calvin Johnson and a good QB in Reggie Ball. The Yellow Jackets will press the UNC defense, UNC should be able to get some kind of offense going. The Heels' best bet is to grind the clock, keep Johnson and Ball off the field which means the UNC defense will be rested and Homecoming will end swimmingly. UNC squeaks it out 20-17.
So at this point UNC would be 5-5 and hosting....
November 18th, NC State, Chapel Hill, NC, TBA
This could be a :"Losing Coach Gets Fired" game. For some reason no one thinks Bunting and NC State coach Chuck Amato are in trouble. If Amato falls to 3-4 versus UNC and 2-4 versus Bunting I happen to think the natives in southwest Raleigh will be restless indeed. If they make a bowl he will likely keeps his job but the hot seat will be warming for next season. In reality Bunting probably does not feel any heat from this game, even if he loses. Such is the apathy in Chapel Hill about football. However if this loss drops UNC to 3-8 then he might not make it to the Duke game. As for the much anticipated renewal of hostilities between State and Carolina strap yourself in for a penalty fest full of bad officiating, nasty turnovers...oh wait that was last year's game. Well since nothing much has changed and each team is still coached by the same two guys I have no reason to believe the same game is not played out again. UNC wins 31-24.
November 25th, Duke, Durham, NC, TBA
Duke sucks. And let me be clear I do not say that as a part of standard UNC fan usage Duke really does have a horrible football team. They lost their started QB to some academic cheating scandal and now they may have a converted wide receiver under center. They could be 0 for the season come Nov. 25 at Wallace Wade unless they are able to be Richmond in the opener because let's be honest. Duke. Will. Not. Beat. Anyone. Else. UNC romps 41-10.
So there I am calling it a 7-5 season which will get UNC into some bowl played well before New Year's which will keep John Bunting in Chapel Hill at least two more seasons and the apathy rolls on. In terms of how badly could this season go I would look at the games with GT and NCSU as possible losses. South Florida and Rutgers might be a surprise. 5-7 is a real possibility and if all four of these games go the wrong way UNC ends up 3-9 which you would think would lead to some serious questions about John Bunting and the direction of the program.
I will reserve judgment on that until after the Rutgers game which I believe to be a must win if the season is to go well. There is no room for error on this schedule. Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami, VT are certain losses. Rutgers, South Florida, and Furman are must wins coupled with the Duke win which makess Virginia, GT, and NC State the three crucial games which separate UNC from a bowl year and another weak 4-5 win season.