A public university with high academic standards and an underwhelming football team. Sound familiar? For once we are not referencing our beloved California Golden Bears but rather our first opponent of 2017, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
A deeper look into the Tar Heels last season reveals frustrating similarities to the 2015 Cal football season. A highly touted quarterback leading a veteran wide receiver corps to solid, yet underwhelming results that left fans wanting more. The Tar Heels finished their 2016–2017 campaign to the tune of 8–5, identical to the record of the Jared Goff–led Bears. A few months after the seasons conclusion, former Heels starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky heard his name called as the number two overall pick and headed to the not so friendly confines of Soldier Field. Trubisky leaves behind a program searching for its next signal caller and still fighting to establish an identity on defense, the similarities continue!
To play devils advocate it is quite possible the football expectations for the Tar Heels are far lower than that of Cal football. Now before every North Carolina fan throws a chair in my general direction, hear me out. The Tar Heels just walked away with a thrilling basketball title, the second under Roy Williams and constantly compete for the ACC championship on the hardwood. While North Carolina has done an excellent job establishing a football program it is still a basketball school first and everything else is secondary. Every single player on the football team and Larry Fedora certainly beg to differ but it is hard to see North Carolina shifting over to a football-first school anytime soon and Cal, despite the recent mediocrity, is still a football-first school.
Fedora hasn’t done himself any favors in 2017 in regards to scheduling. The Tar Heels face one of the more grueling schedules in college football, but do manage to skip defending national champions Clemson. The Tar Heels will face Duke, the Lamar Jackson show and Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech as well as Cal this upcoming season. While it certainly isn’t as daunting of a task as the Bears have this season, the ACC is far from the laughable conference it once was in college football.
2016 Year In Review
The 2016 season for the Tar Heels was one full of what if’s and what could have been’s. The Heels rode out to a 4–1 start to begin the year topped off with a 37–35 upset victory at Florida State. They followed that up with a blowout loss to Virginia Tech during a hurricane that might have negatively impacted their passing game, but still doesn’t account for only scoring three points. Still, the Heels were 7–2 through the first week of November and certainly had their sights set on bigger bowls than the Hyundai Sun Bowl, where they eventually finished. An upset loss at rival Duke and loss at NC State to conclude the season destroyed any hope of a New Year’s day bowl game.
The Tar Heels statistically performed better than their record showed and actually finished in the top 25 in S&P+ percentile for the 2017 season.
Their rankings across the board show their record perhaps under-represented just how good they were in the 2016–2017 season. The Heels were consistently plagued with a defense that improved, however struggled to make big plays all year. The secondary only forced one interception throughout the year and didn’t give their offense enough opportunities in the close losses. Now they are forced to reset having lost the majority of their offensive weapons at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back with the defensive issues still persisting. It all makes for a very interesting upcoming year and an even more intriguing match-up for Cal right out of the gates.
Players to Watch
M.j Stewart, Safety
It was a hard thought decision but I have decided to return for my senior season. I look forward to being a leader and ending with a bang!— Mj Stewart (@Checkout_Marv) December 31, 2016
Perhaps the best news following the Tar Heels Sun Bowl loss was the announcement that their key safety M.j Stewart planned to return for his senior year. He led the Tar Heels in pass breakups during the 2016–2017 campaign with 11 and also racked up the seventh-most tackles on the team. He had some interest at the NFL level, but felt confident enough in returning to the program for his senior season.
Donnie Miles, Safety
The tandem of Miles and Stewart is not one to take lightly. Where as Stewart is excellent in coverage, Miles has the ability to blow receivers up, evidenced below.
The two represent some of the more tenured players for the Tar Heels and provide stability where as the offensive side of the ball finds itself in more of a rebuild situation due to the departures at quarterback, running back, and receiver. The biggest issue for the Heels is one that plagued Cal for many seasons which is wondering how a consistently under-performing defense can turn the proverbial corner. In 2017, their teams success depends on it.
An Unfortunate Turn of Events
There would almost certainly not be as many questions for the Tar Heels on offense had they been able to retain starting running back Elijah Hood as many expected. Prior to the Sun Bowl, Hood announced he planned to return for his senior year, which would have been a huge boon for the 2017 squad. Hood changed his mind after the Trubisky announcement and declared for the NFL draft just one week after the conclusion of the Sun Bowl defeat. Hood averaged nearly 5.9 yards per carry last season and proved to be a dynamic playmaker as a receiver as well. He narrowly missed 1,000 all purpose yards and figures to be a key rookie to watch for the Oakland Raiders behind Beast Mode himself.
What to expect against Cal
The Bears present an interesting match-up for North Carolina. On paper, the Cal quarterbacks who both lack any significant game experience (thank you Sonny) may struggle against a more senior defensive backfield. However, Cal’s running game has the potential to make an impact early against the Tar Heels and Beau Baldwin has to be excited about facing a defense not prone to forcing turnovers. The Bears have plenty of speed and athleticism at the receiver position and an offense facing far less turnover than that of the Tar Heels. If Cal’s defense is as improved as advertised, the Bears have a shot at an early upset in the Wilcox era.