2020 season: 8-4, 7-3 in the ACC (4th in conference)
Head coach: Mack Brown (13th season)
In his third season back as North Carolina’s head coach, Mack Brown’s second tenure sparked a revival of the program. Not only did North Carolina become a recruiting powerhouse once again, it also received a bid to the Orange Bowl last year, its first appearance in a major bowl since 2001. Despite losing a number of key pieces from last season, the Tar Heels begin this one with high expectations, as they were ranked No. 10 on the preseason AP Poll and hope to reach another major bowl game.
North Carolina returns its star quarterback Sam Howell, who has been starting for the team since his freshman season in 2019. As one of college football’s most proven quarterbacks this season, Howell is among the favorites for both the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. With his sturdy 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame along with a strong arm and high passing precision, the third-year North Carolina native will unquestionably set a high floor for the team’s air raid offense.
The ceiling of the Tar Heel offense, however, is more dependent upon its younger players who start this season. With the departure of wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome to the NFL, Beau Corrales needs to step up as the experienced leader, while Kahfre Brown and Josh Downs are both vying for starting spots. The Tar Heels also lost their duo of electric running backs, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, but Ty Chandler, the graduate transfer from Tennessee, is the new face of the position and rushed for a total of 2,046 yards during his past four seasons. Adding onto that, the return of tight end Garrett Walston provides the Tar Heels with a push on their already established offense.
The best news for the Tar Heels is that they bring back the entire offensive line from last year, which helped the team average 6.5 yards per rush during the 2020 season. Pass protection may still be a concern, but the experience, combined with the chemistry built upon upperclassmen leadership, looks to give the linemen a boost from last season.
Perhaps the Tar Heels’ biggest area of improvement is their defense, which forced just 11 turnovers last year, the worst in the ACC. With the departure of Chazz Surratt, who was last season's leading tackler, Jeremiah Gemmel and Tomon Fox lead the unit this fall. And while the defensive line has traditionally been undersized, North Carolina returns Tamari Fox and Raymond Vohasek, both of whom are bigger, athletic players who were starters last year. Their strongest component comes from their backfield, which consists of returning cornerbacks Storm Duck, Kyler McMichael and Tony Grimes, as well as safety Trey Morrison; all of them bring experience at several positions.