UNC Optimistic Despite Postseason Ban
By Stuart Barefoot
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Although UNC is ineligible for postseason play this season, the Tar Heels are set up to have a very successful 2012 campaign.
It is impossible that North Carolina will go to the post season this year. They can’t, as they’ve been banned for a year. All the same, the Tar Heels have reason to be cautiously optimistic about 2012. Cautious being the operative word there. Not many teams can lose their head coach, vacate two seasons worth of wins, reduce scholarships and face an NCAA sanctioned post season ban and still feel good about the upcoming season. But due in part to beneficiary timing, as well as a talented mix of players and coaches, North Carolina has come out of an ugly chapter of school history still standing, and with a chance to create a successful future. It will begin with the ground work that they can lay in 2012.
First there is timing. Talent wise, the Heels have been improving as the conference has been declining. The two are not mutually exclusive, so some of their recent statistical success can be attributed to playing in a conference that has not been at its best for the better part of a decade. Still, UNC doubled its win total in 2008 from 2007 (four to eight,) sent a starting QB to the NFL, and won their first bowl game in nine years in 2010. Most of those accomplishments are done routinely by the nation’s best programs, but for a program that is outshined by even their Women’s Soccer team (an astounding 20 national titles), it’s not something football fans in Chapel Hill will be sneezing at any time soon.
Even though the talent level has noticeably improved over the last five seasons, UNC should benefit from a weak schedule in 2012. They open with Elon on September 1, and close with Maryland on November 24. Of the 12 teams the Heels are scheduled to play, only five (NC State, VT, GT, Louisville, and Virginia) posted winning records last season. The Heels play eight teams from last season’s campaign, and were 4-4 against those eight last season.
Teams like Virginia Tech and N.C State are sure to cause problems for UNC. The Wolfpack have dominated the rivalry lately, winning the last five games, including a 13-0 shutout this past year. Virginia Tech narrowly beat the Heels in 2011, and is the only team projected to finish in the top 25 that UNC has to play in 2012. Other than those two games, Carolina has a reasonable chance to beat any of the other ten teams they play. Georgia Tech and Miami are the other two teams that UNC lost to and must face again, but the Hurricanes had an abject disaster of an offseason. Other than Penn State, and maybe Charlie Sheen, Miami has had the biggest scandal of the last year, so who knows what they’ll do in 2012?
Of course, trying to predict how Carolina will fare against any of their opponents in 2012 is purely conjecture and an inexact science. They likely won’t finish 10-2 as suggested by the previous paragraph. But of their four non-conference games, only Louisville is expected to give Carolina problems. Even the Cardinals, though, are young, and despite being a favorite to win the Big East, do not pose an absolute threat to down the Heels. At worst, Carolina could finish 3-1 outside of conference play.
Within the ACC, UNC avoids two of the top three teams by not having to play Clemson or Florida State, and will get the two worst in Duke and Maryland. They play Virginia and N.C. State, both of which receive national attention every year, so they receive monetary benefits at the very least from those two games, a perk that should not get overlooked. They will also face Wake Forest, a team which they obliterated 49-24 last October.
Overall, UNC has a pretty manageable schedule, and an 8-4 finish is not out of the question. While they likely won't be playing in the Orange Bowl for a few years, the odds of them going at some point in the future are looking better now that the ACC has a contract with them, and stand to benefit financially from it for the next 12 years at the very least. In any case, the Tar Heels should begin the ground work in 2012 for a successful 2013 when they are eligible for a bowl game.
Then there is the talented personnel that will call Chapel hill home. There will be 14 starters returning for Carolina. Eight of those are on the offensive side of the ball, most notably QB Bryn Renner. Combine that with offensive wizard and new UNC head coach Larry Fedora, and the Heels have a formidable offense. Renner has reportedly handled the new, fast-paced offense well, and has maintained his accuracy.
Renner will have a talented corps of running backs helping him out, with Giovanni Bernard as the projected starter. Bernard ran for 1,253 yards last year, and has two talented RB’s behind him in the depth chart in A.J Blue, who has experience, and Romar Morris, a highly-touted redshirt freshmen. Erik Highsmith, who caught 51 passes for 726 yards in 2011, will anchor the receiving corps.
Carolina lost some key players from last year’s defense, most notably, DE Quinton Coples. They do, however, boast talented seniors like DE Dion Guy, DT Sylvester Williams, and LB Kevin Reddick, who has over 100 career tackles. 2012 also marks the return of K Casey Barth, who missed virtually all of 2011.
Given the tough circumstances surrounding North Carolina the last few years, the outlook for 2012 and beyond could be much worse. A talented group of players, a highly revered coach, a relatively easy schedule, and a conference wide open for the taking, are all reasons that the future of football at the nation’s oldest public university is a bright one.