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DeCock: Now is the time for UNC Tar Heels to crack 8-win barrier

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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  • Tar Heels outlook

    The Tar Heels are the trendy choice in the Coastal Division, and while I leaned toward Duke a month ago, it’s harder to get behind the Blue Devils given their injury situation. Line play will be critical for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels have playmakers to spare and should be able to put up points with either QB.

    The forecast: 9-3 and a Coastal Division title – for real this time.

    Luke DeCock

CHAPEL HILL John Bunting didn’t do it. Came close with Carl Torbush’s players. Never did again.

Butch Davis couldn’t do it. Might have in 2010, had John Blake and Marvin Austin not brought things tumbling down.

Larry Fedora hasn’t done it. Optimism and enthusiasm, yes. More than eight wins, no.

If North Carolina is ever going to break the eight-win plateau, cross over from the perpetual also-rans to the actually-dids for the first time since Mack Brown’s final season in 1997, this is the season.

This has to be the season. Nine wins. Ten wins. More.

With the ACC’s Coastal Division a free-for-all and no Florida State on the schedule, the Tar Heels are set up for what could be a banner season.

It’s entirely possible it could come down to a four-week stretch in September and October that includes games at East Carolina, at Clemson and at Notre Dame. How the Tar Heels fare will say a lot about how much is on the line in November when they have to go to Miami and Duke. Win two out of three, and 10 wins is well within reach. Win all three, the sky’s the limit.

Those five road games are tough ones, but the sixth is at Virginia and the home schedule is easier. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech both come to Chapel Hill, as do Pittsburgh and N.C. State. Nonconference openers against Liberty and San Diego State shouldn’t pose too much of a threat while giving the new quarterback, whomever he is, a chance to settle.

Meanwhile, all around the Tar Heels, pieces click into place. Duke lost two of its most important players, one on each side of the ball, for the season with knee injuries. Miami, already facing a difficult schedule, has developed quarterback issues. Virginia Tech has yet to arrest its slide from dominance. Georgia Tech doesn’t look all that threatening.

The Coastal Division is a mess. The traditional powers are down, the defending champs are reeling.

And, yes, the Tar Heels have issues of their own. Fedora has played it coy over whether Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky will start the season at quarterback, but based on Williams’ play last season and the advance billing for Trubisky, it may not matter. There’s going to be a dropoff on the offensive and defensive lines, but there’s still dangerous talent at the skill positions on offense, which is really what makes Fedora’s scheme click.

Get past that, and there’s a reason Las Vegas has installed North Carolina as favorites to win the Coastal and both polls have the Tar Heels in the Top 25. Everyone is wondering who’s going to end up cleaning up in the Coastal, and everyone seems to be coming back to North Carolina as the most logical candidate. It’s possible to see North Carolina going anywhere from 10-2 to 6-6, and it’s probably easier to make a case for the former than the latter.

Eight wins in Year 1. Seven in Year 2. Fedora knows the team, he knows the school, he knows the league. Everything he’s done at North Carolina has been building toward this. It’s time.

This season, eight wins won’t be good enough. The Tar Heels have to set the bar higher. They’re capable of clearing it.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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