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Ranking UNC games by difficulty

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
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- Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
The quarterback competition between Marquise Williams (12) and Mitch Trubisky was a major story line during preseason camp. Now the season is here.

CHAPEL HILL North Carolina starts the season on Saturday at home against Liberty, which we can all agree should be the Tar Heels' easiest game of the season. But what about the second-easiest game? And what's the most difficult?

With the season starting soon, the exact moment has come to rank the Tar Heels' games in order of difficulty, most difficult to least. I'm using quite the scientific method here, too: my opinion.

Let's get to it, the definitive ranking of UNC's games:

1. at Clemson, Sept. 27

UNC doesn't play Clemson all that much anymore, but the Tar Heels haven't won in Death Valley since 2001, and the Tar Heels’ two most recent trips there – in 2011 and 2006 – have been drubbings. The Tigers are the most talented team on the Tar Heels' schedule and their defensive front could wreak havoc on UNC's offensive line.

2. at Notre Dame, Oct. 11

I don't know if Notre Dame is the second-best team on UNC's schedule, but this is probably the second-most difficult game because it's on the road on a grand stage at Notre Dame Stadium. Will the moment overwhelm the Tar Heels? Is that a silly question? Notre Dame is in the midst of an academic fraud probe and has suspended five players, and it's unclear how that will affect the Fighting Irish this season.

3. at Duke, Nov. 20

Duke is certainly Duke, as Pete Gillen once said (and as Jim Rome reminded us in one of the great moments in radio history), and the Blue Devils have had UNC's number more than … Leave it to Beavuhhhh, reruns! But seriously: Duke has beaten UNC two straight years now, and the Coastal Division might well come down to this Thursday night, nationally-televised game.

4. at Miami, Nov. 1

Who knows what to expect out of Miami? The Hurricanes could win the division. They could finish fifth. Would anything really be all that surprising? The Tar Heels have won two of their past three games at Miami, which plays in the terrible Sun Life Stadium. Side note: last time I was there, Tim Tebow was leading a comeback against Miami Dolphins that started Tebowmania 2011.

5. at East Carolina, Sept. 20

If you're surprised to see the Pirates so high on this list, you undoubtedly don't remember what happened last September at Kenan Stadium, where ECU put a 55-31 whuppin' on UNC. The Pirates lost some key players, but quarterback Shane Carden is back, and so is receiver Justin Hardy. And Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be loud. This is almost a must-win for UNC, given what's ahead on the schedule.

6. vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 4

I won't be convinced that the Hokies actually have an offense this season until I see it but, even without one, the defense is still good enough to keep Virginia Tech in games. By now, the Tar Heels should have their quarterback situation figured out and, given the skill on offense, UNC should be generating plenty of scoring chances. Three touchdowns could be enough.

7. vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 18

Pittsburgh is better than Georgia Tech, allegedly, but this is a more difficult game for UNC because … it's Georgia Tech. And Georgia Tech reigns over the Tar Heels by virtue, it seems, of some kind of unexplainable voodoo curse. The Yellow Jackets have won five consecutive against UNC, including that 68-50 debacle of a game at Kenan Stadium two years ago. UNC has won two of the past 14 games in the series.

8. vs. Pitt, Nov. 15

Pitt is one of those teams that everybody expects to be pretty good, a team that could even win the Coastal Division. But be honest: You don't know much about Pitt. Nobody does. The Panthers lost their quarterback, lost Aaron Donald, but they do have that really good receiver (Tyler Boyd). The Coastal Division is likely to be all jammed up at this point, too, so – important game.

9. vs. N.C. State, Nov. 29

The Wolfpack could be significantly improved from last season or only slightly improved, and we might never know the difference given it plays the easiest non-conference schedule possibly ever conceived by an ACC team. Things to know about N.C. State: the team is young, and Jacoby Brissett is an upgrade at quarterback. But the Wolfpack still seems a ways away.

10. at Virginia, Oct. 25

I'm not convinced that Virginia will be as awful as many expect, but the Cavaliers are still likely to be pretty bad. Still, four or five victories would be an improvement. I was tempted to put the N.C. State game here, and likely would have if Virginia had any kind of a home-field advantage. Not that Mike London's teams have done anything to deserve one, but still.

11. San Diego State, Sept. 6

Look, I'll be honest with you: I don't know much about San Diego State, other than that the Aztecs went 8-5 last season, beat Buffalo in a bowl game and return six starters on offense and four on defense. Both the offense and defense ranked in the 50s nationally last season. Is this too low? Perhaps. But where would you put the Aztecs if not here? Above mighty Virginia? Ahead of a rival? The Aztecs could be still be jet-lagged by kickoff, anyway.

12. Liberty, Aug. 30

The Flames are an FCS team, and UNC under Larry Fedora has abused this kind of competition. The Tar Heels beat Old Dominion 80-20 last season. They beat Elon 63-0 in Fedora's first game at UNC in 2012. And they beat Idaho 66-0 later that season. Idaho isn't a FCS team, not technically, but it might as well be.

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