With the outcome of an NCAA investigation still months away, North Carolina football coach Butch Davis, his staff and players are basically in the same situation as a year ago.
Barring an unusually quick resolution of the case, the Tar Heels will have to separate off-field from on-field issues as they go through preseason camp and the schedule.
Considering a long list of player suspensions, 2010 went reasonably well — 4-4 in the ACC, 8-5 overall and a bowl win over Tennessee.
With Louisiana State off the 2011 slate, Davis’ team should go 4-0 outside the conference. Three non-league games — James Madison (Sept. 3), Rutgers (Sept. 10) and Louisville (Oct. 8) _ will be in Chapel Hill. The only road non-leaguer will be at ECU (Oct. 1), which the Heels have easily defeated the past two seasons in Kenan Stadium.
The conference road schedule will be difficult — Georgia Tech (Sept. 24), Clemson (Oct. 22), N.C. State (Nov. 5) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 17).
But in Kenan, the Heels will be favored against all four league foes — Virginia (Sept. 17), Miami (Oct. 15), Wake Forest (Oct. 29) and Duke (Nov. 26).
As always, there’ll be surprise outcomes pro and con for the team, but an 8-4 overall, 4-4 ACC finish, or better, should be for the taking.
With a 28-23 record (15-17 ACC without a win over State) through four seasons and given the off-field turmoil, Davis could pad his firewall substantially by winning the Coastal Division title and taking the Heels to their first championship game appearance.
With both Tech games on the road, claiming the Coastal will be a long shot, particularly behind a new quarterback, Bryn Renner, and an uncertain running back situation.
But in the midst of an ongoing run of distractions last season, Davis and his staff managed to keep the players focused on the games.
That part of the preparation equation should be easier with the 2011 team.