UNC coach Larry Fedora is energized about the start of the 2012 season. PHOTO: Robert Willett
CHAPEL HILL — And we’re exactly one month away from the first full Saturday of the 2012 college football season. North Carolina on Sept. 1 will begin the season at Kenan Stadium against Elon in the first-ever game between the schools.
Given that the season is so close now – the Tar Heels open preseason practice here on Friday – I thought it’d be as good of a time as any to offer a little bit of schedule analysis, and to break down the 12 games on UNC’s schedule from least difficult to most. Given that UNC is ineligible for the postseason, the regular season will take on added significance.
So without further delay, a look at that schedule …
… First, as a reminder, here is UNC’s complete schedule:
Sept. 1 vs. Elon
Sept. 8 at Wake Forest
Sept. 15 at Louisville
Sept. 22 vs. East Carolina
Sept. 29 vs. Idaho
Oct. 6 vs. Virginia Tech
Oct. 13 at Miami
Oct. 20 at Duke
Oct. 27 vs. N.C. State
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech
Nov. 15 at Virginia
Nov. 24 vs. Maryland
Some initial thoughts:
--Sitting here in August, it’s difficult to say exactly how difficult this schedule is. We won’t understand that until late November. But for now, a month before the season, this isn’t a schedule that seems all that difficult, does it? UNC will go more than a month before playing a game in which it’s likely to be a clear underdog and even that game – on Oct. 6 against Virginia Tech – is winnable.
--Only five road games and one of those is at Duke, which hasn’t defeated UNC since 2003. And before that, you have to go back to 1989 to find another Blue Devils victory in this series.
--Most difficult stretch? I’ll go with Oct. 27 through Nov. 15: N.C. State and Georgia Tech come into Kenan Stadium – with a bye week between them – followed by a trip to Virginia on a Thursday night on a short week. If UNC is still in the Coastal Division race in late October – and the Tar Heels should be – then this stretch of games will decide whether they stay in it.
All right … the moment you’ve been waiting for. How do these games rank in terms of difficulty? Below is one man’s opinion, least difficult to most difficult.
--Sept. 1 vs. Elon: The Phoenix have been a solid I-AA team for a while now, but are coming off a 5-6 season in which they suffered a 45-14 loss against Vanderbilt in their only game against a I-A opponent. UNC should win easily.
--Sept. 29 vs. Idaho: The Vandals were 2-10 a season ago, though one of those 10 losses came by only one point at Virginia, which survived in a 21-20 victory last October. Idaho has had one winning season this decade and coaches in the WAC picked Idaho to finish fifth this season.
--Oct. 20 at Duke: When is a rivalry not a rivalry? When one team has beaten the other in 21 out of the past 22 years. The Blue Devils have improved under coach David Cutcliffe, but you keep waiting for this series to become competitive again. Despite some close games here and there, the outcomes have remained the same.
--Nov. 24 vs. Maryland: The Terrapins were awful in Randy Edsall’s first season, finishing an abysmal 2-10 in 2011. As bad it looked on the field, it might have been worse off of it with all the drama that surrounded the program. Maryland enters the 2012 season with outside expectations as low as they’ve been in a long time.
--Sept. 22 vs. East Carolina: The Pirates’ 34-31 victory against UNC back in 2007 doesn’t seem that long ago, right? Right? And yet it does. Probably because three UNC victories have come since, all by at least two touchdowns. The Heels left Greenville a season ago with a 35-20 victory, and these programs could be going opposite directions.
--Oct. 13 at Miami: Yes, it’s Miami and yes, it’s on the road. But consider this question: Would you consider a game against a depleted team that plays in a stadium with no home-field advantage whatsoever to be difficult? If so, then this I suppose this could be a difficult game. But it’s not, really.
--Sept. 15 at Louisville: Last time UNC traveled to Louisville, back in 2005, it left with a 69-14 loss. The Tar Heels should fare better this time around, at least. But this is an interesting game. After consecutive 7-6 seasons under Charlie Strong, Louisville is the favorite to win the Big East. That might not say much, but still.
--Sept. 8 at Wake Forest: UNC’s 49-24 victory against Wake was one of the Heels’ most impressive performances a season ago. But you can throw that out, of course, because of all the change at UNC since. How will UNC’s new 4-2-5 defense fare against the Demon Deacons’ misdirection? And why do I think this game is more difficult than the one against Louisville? Because it’s earlier in the season – and is UNC’s first test against a I-A team.
--Nov. 10 vs. Georgia Tech: The good news for UNC? This game comes after an off week, which will give the Heels more time to figure out how to slow the Yellow Jackets’ option running game. The bad? The Heels have won twice in this series since 1998. Of course, that doesn’t really matter. But no matter the system or the head coach, UNC hasn’t had much success against Georgia Tech for more than a decade.
--Nov. 15 at Virginia: The Cavaliers were one of the surprise teams in the conference a season ago, and Mike London clearly has them headed in the right direction. This is a tough game. Thursday night. On the road. Short week (though you can be sure that during its bye week UNC will get in some Virginia prep). The Heels have won the past two by a combined 45 points. Don’t see this one being as easy.
--Oct. 27 vs. N.C. State: It’s only August and yet you can already feel the anticipation building for this one, no? Larry Fedora has already embraced the rivalry, and is counting down the days until the Tar Heels will have a chance to break their five-game losing streak in the series. An N.C. State victory would give the Wolfpack the longest winning streak they’ve ever had against UNC.
--Oct. 6 vs. Virginia Tech: UNC has defeated the Hokies once this decade – a 20-17 victory in 2009 that the NCAA has since vacated. The Tar Heels last victory against Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill? It came in 1938. Fedora has said his team is playing for the Coastal Division championship and to accomplish that goal, it likely has to beat the Hokies.
So there you have it – a look at UNC’s schedule, easiest game to the most difficult. As for predictions? Those will come another day …