In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
[divider]RANKINGS: Top 100 FBS Teams for 2018
TRIVIA: Daily CFB Trivia Question
MORE: Best FBS Player for Each Jersey Number
MORE: Best FCS Player for Each Jersey Number[divider]
No. 79 North Carolina
"[W]e'll be a better team because of it," Larry Fedora said of last season, which he called "probably the toughest thing that I've experienced as a football coach in my 30 years."
Fedora's staff and many players have echoed the sentiment, saying that 2017 was frustrating, not an accurate reflection of the program and everything else that comes with winning five fewer games than the previous year and eight fewer games than two years earlier.
Now they just need to pick a quarterback and figure out how to stop the run, force a few more turnovers and a whole bunch of other things.
2017 Record: 3-9 (1-7, ACC)
North Carolina wasn't as bad as their record suggests but, still, the Tar Heels were not a good team in 2017.
Poor defense (30 or more points in seven of their 10 Power Five games), subpar offensive line (30 sacks, 4.1 yards per rush) and inconsistent quarterback play (16 interceptions) led to their second-lowest win total in three decades.
They lost to Duke for the fourth time in six years and suffered a 52-point loss to Virginia Tech, the Hokies' largest-ever margin of victory in an ACC game.
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (7th Year, 43-34)
Two years ago Larry Fedora was coming off the program's fourth-ever 11-win season and had a lucrative four-year extension. He signed another extension — this time seven years — last May after a strong eight-win campaign. He was one of the most sought-after coaches in America and rumored to be a potential candidate at some big-time jobs.
A three-win season changes a lot. While athletics director Bubba Cunningham and other university leadership have given no indication that the seventh-year coach is on the hot seat, another dud season could put some heat on Fedora.
WR Austin Proehl, WR Jordyn Adams, LB Andre Smith, LB Cayson Collins, CB M.J. Stewart
Of North Carolina's three draft picks — Austin Proehl, Andre Smith and M.J. Stewart — M.J. Stewart is the biggest loss. A two-time All-ACC Honorable Mention corner, Stewart is the school's all-time leader in pass breakups and was all over the field the last two years, registering 111 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and 23 passes defended.
Jordyn Adams isn't technically a loss because he was never on the team but he will not play football at North Carolina as many hoped. The four-star receiver, who signed with UNC for both baseball and football, was chosen in the first round of the MLB Draft and opted for baseball.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Chazz Surratt, QB Nathan Elliott, RB Jordon Brown, RB Michael Carter, WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams, OT William Sweet, OT Charlie Heck
North Carolina's quarterback battle wasn't, as expected, settled in the spring and will go into fall camp. Chazz Surratt played well early in the season as redshirt freshman, and while he wasn't lighting up scoreboards with highlight-reel plays, he completed 70 percent of his passes for 588 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in their first three games.
And he can do things like this:
Surratt began to struggle, got hurt and was replaced by sophomore Nathan Elliott.
Then, after Elliott's vomit-inducing 16-for-39 (one touchdown, three interceptions) start vs. Miami (FL) it was his turn to play smart, adequately efficient football. Over their final three games, including their first ACC win of the season (vs. Pittsburgh) he threw for 752 yards, nine touchdowns and two picks.
“Both of them want that position, so both of them are competing every single day in every aspect,” Fedora said after spring practice. “In the film room, in the dining hall. I don’t mean they’re eating, I’m talking about the way they are around their teammates. “You’re competing on how you lead and how your teammates respond to you."
The winner gets one of the best playmakers in the country in junior receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a former quarterback (the No. 1 high school quarterback in the state in 2015) who had a breakout sophomore season. Ratliff-Williams was the only player with more than 30 receptions and 350 yards, and he and Austin Proehl were the only regular pass-catchers to average more than 13 yards per receptions.
"He's only going to get even better," Fedora said of Ratliff-Williams, who also averaged 26 yards per kickoff return and had two return touchdowns. "There's so many things he can work on, from how to use the leverage of the (defensive back), how to get open, how to make competitive catches – that's one of the things he specializes in. Now it's learning the finer nuances of the position."
Jordon Brown and Michael Carter are a solid tandem in the backfield. Carter averaged 5.8 yards per carry as a freshman, aided by 13 carries for 157 yards vs. Virginia. William Sweet and Charlie Heck are the only returning starters on an offensive line that struggled mightily last year. Sweet missed spring ball while recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss nine games last year.
"That group needs to get a lot of work together," Fedora said of the offensive line. "Unfortunately, at this time, we weren’t able to do that. You’re rolling in a lot of guys looking for the best five, and that changed throughout spring.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Malik Carney, DT Jalen Dalton, DT Aaron Crawford, LB Cole Holcomb, LB Malik Robinson, LB Jonathan Smith, LB Dom Ross, CB K.J. Sails, S Tre Shaw, S Myles Dorn, S J.K. Britt
Second-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis is tasked with improving a unit that ranked last in the ACC against the run, 90th nationally in turnovers forced, 74th in sacks and 75th in first downs allowed.
“I feel really good about everything that we have coming back," Papuchis said in December. "Sometimes statistics don’t always reflect the whole story. Statistically, we weren’t where we needed to be — and there were a lot of areas where we weren’t. But I thought defensively, we did a lot of good things . . . in nine of our 12 games, we’re winning in the second half, so it’s not like we’re that far away."
He's right; they were OK on third downs and in the red zone, and while they only had seven interceptions it was a huge improvement from 2016 (two interceptions). And, for example, they led North Carolina State, 14-12, late in the third quarter and had given up barely 300 total yards. Two one-play touchdown drives for 102 total yards later, the Tar Heels were on their way to a ninth loss with ugly defensive numbers.
Malik Carney (below) is back after leading the team in sacks each of the last two years (20.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks) and is aiming for double-digit sacks as a senior. He has good balance and will often get very low to get around the edge.
“I feel that every defense goes as their defensive line goes,” Carney said. “Without a defensive line, as well as on offense with the offensive line, it’s hard for an offense or defense to make plays."
Don't let the parade of returning linebackers fool you; North Carolina has issues after losing Smith and Collins. Cole Holcomb is the only sure thing, though the senior who's led the team in tackles the last two seasons, missed spring practice. The other three ran with the first team in camp and sit in the "breakout candidates" pool. They're not bad but that's a lot of uncertainty for a defense that allowed nearly five yards per rushing attempt and rarely had their linebackers making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The secondary is led by three upperclassmen in Britt, Dorn and Sails but I'm most curious about the development of sophomore Tre Shaw, a 6-foot, 190-pound corner with NFL talent. The four-star recruit enrolled early last year and played OK in limited action.
QB Jace Ruder, RB Javonte Williams, WR Dyami Brown, S Bryson Richardson
Four-star dual-threat quarterback Jace Ruder was one of six freshmen who enrolled early and participated in spring camp. Barring a shocking development in the fall, Ruder won't compete for the starting job and is a redshirt candidate. Still, he's the future and someone to keep an eye on.
Three other early enrollees impressed Fedora: Four-star receiver Dyami Brown, three-star running back Javonte Williams and three-star safety Bryson Richardson.
North Carolina and Cal finish 2017-18 home-and-home series with a Week 1 game in Berkeley.
A week later, the Tar Heels visit East Carolina for the fifth time since 2003 to play ECU for 16th time in program history. They play three of their final four games at home, including the finale vs. NC State.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||at Cal|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||at East Carolina|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. UCF|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||at Miami (FL)|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||vs. Virginia Tech|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||at Syracuse|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||at Virginia|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||vs. Georgia Tech|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||at Duke|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. Western Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs. North Carolina State|