A year ago, Mack Brown was trying to resurrect interest in his program. He’d much rather have his current challenge.
“We’ve had a lot of hype since the bowl game,” Brown said. “A lot of people have been talking about how much better we’re going to be and how good we’re going to be. And we’ll see now if that hype is real.”
Last year, the Tar Heels were plagued by fan apathy as home crowds dwindled and buzz around the program virtually dried up in the final years of the Larry Fedora era.
It seemed like a marathon journey to even get to relevance at the time. Now, a scant 12 months later, Brown has to make sure his players aren’t believing their press clippings as Carolina is a trendy dark horse pick in the ACC.
A big part of the turnaround is Sam Howell, the quarterback who rewrote the record book as a true freshman and brings back his big arm and big-play ability for year two. He gets back nearly all of his weapons as the Carolina receiving corps, as a group, chose to spurn the NFL Draft and return for another season with Howell. Overall, UNC returns every player that caught more than five passes last season and loses just 12 of its 265 catches and 111 of its 3,716 receiving yards.
The Heels also return their top two running backs.
On defense, last season’s Cinderella story, Chazz Surratt, also turned down a chance to jump to the NFL. The quarterback-turned-linebacker will be the leader on the defense as well as one of the conference’s top players on that side of the ball. He’s backed by a deep, experienced secondary that gets several key players back from an injury-plagued 2019, including Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison.
Needless to say, the hype train is running full speed through Chapel Hill, a problem no one other than starry-eyed optimist Mack Brown saw heading into last season. A year after getting his kids to believe in themselves, he now needs to keep them grounded.
“Are we going to be that much improved or was it just the momentum at the end of last year?” he said. “And we’ve lost that momentum now. So it’s time to play somebody else and really figure out who we are because I’ve talked to the players about it. Preseason rankings are just hype. They’re about last year. They’re not about what you’ve accomplished this year, so we need to step up and play well and get this season started on a positive note.”
The Heels open with a rare ACC game, against Syracuse, to start the season. The COVID-19 schedule revamp means there will be no easing into the year. The Heels get one nonconference game, against bowl team Charlotte in week two, and 10 ACC contests.
Things aren’t as rosy for the Orange, who are coming off a disappointing 5-7 2019 season that had Dino Babers headed for the hot seat.
Preseason camp hasn’t been kind to Syracuse either. The offensive line has suffered several injuries.
“We’re going to get some guys back in later September, early October,” Babers said, without specifying who was out. “That’ll really be able to change the depth in this group. So it’s not so much, ‘Can you go through the entire season with this amount of guys?’ It’s almost like, ‘Can you survive four weeks with this amount of guys?’ Because if you can survive four weeks, you’re going to have some reinforcements coming over the hill to make you a lot better.”
While Babers waits, it appears that his side of the hill is thinning out even more. The Orange’s opening depth chart didn’t list starting running back Abdul Adams or backup Jarveon Howard. While it’s not clear that they’ve both opted out of the season — and Syracuse isn’t sharing much — Babers’ comments seemed to indicate that he’ll be without both backs.
He spoke about a “moral and spiritual cutoff” for opting out. “I think the big thing is the team needs to know certain things because the team needs to know who they’re going to have running out of the tunnel with them,” Babers said.
The wounded Orange opened as 19-point underdogs and have slipped to 22, leaving Brown battling a foe that hasn’t made many appearances in Chapel Hill in recent years, at least during football season — overconfidence.
“We’re playing a team that we haven’t seen before,” Brown said, “that we weren’t prepared for, and we’ve got fewer players ready to play on the offensive line on a hot day than I would like. Obviously, other than all the other stuff that coaches worry about in opening ballgames, that would be my biggest concern.”