College football is on its way back, so we continue with the Today’s U Top 25 preseason rankings. We’re trotting out a new team each day. We started at No. 25 and we’ll build each day until we reach No. 1.
No. 22: NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Last Season: 11-3 (8-0 ACC Coastal, lost 49-38 against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl).
Last Five Seasons: 39-26 (four bowl games).
Coach: Larry Fedora (fifth season, 32-20).
Overview: It was a major breakthrough for Fedora’s program as the Tar Heels won 11 games, capturing the ACC Coastal Division title while going unbeaten in league contests and giving top-ranked Clemson a tussle in the ACC Championship Game. With lots of returning talent, particularly on offense, UNC is a solid choice to again win the ACC Coastal.
Player To Watch: Junior RB Elijah Hood is an earth-moving ball-carrier who can carry the UNC offense. He had 1,463 rushing yards in 2015 — the second-highest single-season total in program history — and 17 touchdowns. His career rushing average is six yards per carry. Opposing defenses, already conscious of UNC’s perimeter passing threat, must account for Hood.
Top Newcomer: LB Jonathan Smith figures to contribute more than any other freshman. He enrolled early and took advantage of his opportunity, working with the first-team defense because of injuries to other linebackers. Smith will likely open as backup to sophomore Andre Smith (no relation) at middle linebacker.
All-Conference Potential: OL Jon Heck, RB Elijah Hood, OL Caleb Peterson, DB M.J. Stewart.
Key Question: Is redshirt junior QB Mitch Trubisky ready to thrive? Trubisky has been in Fedora’s system for four years and made serious runs at winning the starting job, which went to Marquise Williams. Trubisky was brilliant last season in cameo roles (40-for-47 passing). But how will things progress now that’s he’s unquestioned main man? Can he handle all the wrinkles of Fedora’s sophisticated offense?
Best Unit: Offensive line. The Tar Heels have one of the nation’s best units. Four starters return, including LG Caleb Peterson and RT Jon Heck, who enter their fourth year as first-stringers. Last season, UNC rushed for a school-record 5.96-yards-per-carry and allowed just 1.1 sacks per game, tops in the ACC.
Good Stat: UNC’s receiving corps is ridiculously talented. Senior Mack Hollins had an obscene 24.8-yard average on his 30 receptions. Senior Ryan Switzer led the team with 55 catches, but he’s even more dangerous on punt returns. He scored twice there last season, giving him a career total of seven, one away from the NCAA career record.
Bad Stat: The Tar Heels made significant defensive gains last season under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik, the former Auburn head coach. But UNC was abysmal at stopping the run, allowing 5.1 yards per carry and ranking 121st nationally (247.4-yard average). Baylor rushed for 645 yards — 645! — in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Big Game: Oct. 15 at Miami. The Tar Heels and Hurricanes figure to battle for the ACC Coastal Division title. UNC lowered the boom on Miami last season in Chapel Hill, winning 59-21.
If Trubisky is up to the task and UNC’s defense holds its ground, the Tar Heels have the makings of a special season. But UNC’s gains could be mitigated by a brutal schedule. There’s a “neutral-site’’ opener against Georgia (at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, uh-huh), along with ACC road games at Florida State (first meeting since 2010) and Miami. It’s possible that UNC could be better, yet not have the championship accomplishments to show for it. Winning the Coastal again seems like the minimum bar.
Next: No. 21 Iowa.