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Syracuse football 2018 opponent preview: North Carolina Tar Heels

“Oh man, who am I rooting for?”

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Sure the Syracuse Orange’s football season doesn’t kick off until August 31. But that’s not going to stop us from discussing SU’s 2018 opponents.

The Orange face yet another challenging schedule this year (and odds say we’re looking at 4.5 wins). So it’s not going to be easy, even with an improved and/or healthier team. Still, we’re looking at the positives wherever possible. Today’s foe:

North Carolina Tar Heels

School: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Mascot: Tar Heels

#BRAND Slogan: “Origin of Flight”

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “#WellActually, the Wright Brothers’ historic flight was four hours away from Chapel Hill” or “What NCAA Investigation?”

Recommended Blog: Tar Heel Blog

Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Coach: Larry Fedora, 7th season. Fedora played receiver at D-III Austin College, then worked his way up through the coaching ranks from there. He went from an assistant at Garland High School in Texas, to a five-year position coach at Baylor, then a quick stop at Air Force. Fedora got his first coordinator gig in 1999 with MTSU, heading to Florida a few years later. He earned the OC job at Oklahoma State in 2005, and finally became a head coach in 2008 at Southern Miss. Four successful years brought him to UNC, where he had five straight seasons winning at least six games, including a No. 15 finish in 2015. Departures and injuries took their toll last season, however, as the team won just three games. Oh, and he’s in pretty good shape.

2017 Record: (3-9) (1-7)

Recapping Last Season:

As mentioned, injuries were a big factor last year, with the team losing offensive linemen like Bentley Spain and William Sweet for much of the season, as well as a good portion of their receivers. That, plus a freshman quarterback in Chazz Surratt led to struggled to put up points against most opponents, especially as the inexperience moved to the top of the depth chart. On defense, losing a linebacker like (now Carolina Panthers rookie) Andre Smith certainly won’t help matters either.

Despite all of those injuries, UNC actually managed to keep it pretty close in a few of their defeats — the Heels lost to Cal, Virginia and Miami by a combined 16 points. The difference there could be boiled down to something as simple as turnover margin, where North Carolina was minus-6 on the year. Pulling out wins in those three contests would’ve meant a bowl game even with all of the struggles.

But that’s tough when the offense can’t produce. Just two years removed from a top-20 performance on that side of the ball, the Tar Heels fell to 96th in yards per game and 83rd in points per game in 2017. The defense was an equal mess, albeit falling from much lesser heights. UNC allowed 436 yards per game last year (99th in FBS) and 31.3 points per (88th overall), with everything peaking in an embarrassing 59-7 loss to Virginia Tech in October.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Season Outlook:

Bouncing back will be no easy task for Fedora and UNC, as the coach is potentially on the hot seat with a lot of youth and a tough schedule. The Heels are on the road in the first two weeks, against Cal and East Carolina, then host UCF -- a team that hasn’t lost a game since 2016. Miami, Syracuse, Virginia and Duke are also road games. The only surefire win on the home slate is Western Carolina.

Last year’s injuries should give way to some experience on the offensive line, but it’s still a very young group. The hope (for them) is that gives Surratt a little more time to throw, though it’s uncertain to whom he’ll be getting the ball to. Returning wideout Anthony Ratliff-Williams was last year’s leading receiver with just 35 catches, and running back Jordon Brown was next with 29. Brown was a capable back while running the ball, averaging 4.44 yards on 138 carries. Still, this isn’t exactly the spread offense Fedora prefers (they ran just 834 plays last season).

There’s a significant amount of youth all across the defense, as the depth chart is still filled with a lot of juniors and sophomores. One area that could help weather the inexperience, though, is linebacker. Leading tackler Cole Holcomb is back to man the middle, and he’s joined by Ayden Bonilla (29 stops) and Dominique Ross (seven). Those tackle numbers aren’t huge, but the defense was also porous last year. Five of the team’s top seven tackles across the defense are back — which could be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 20

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 60 percent

Very Early Outlook:

Syracuse gets a bump from having home field advantage, and the fact that for once, they may have an edge in depth as well. The Orange have questions at wideout, but there are few answers in the secondary for North Carolina. Similarly, UNC doesn’t appear to have the offensive weapons to take advantage of SU’s biggest weakness: their own defensive backs. Carolina may be conditioned well enough to negate some of Syracuse’s speed. However, the Orange appear to be more experienced and talented on the top line of the depth chart. That should be enough to bring home a much-needed win.