2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Larry Fedora's second season in Chapel Hill was a tale of two extremes. The Tar Heels struggled out of the gate, dropping five of their first six games. The lone win was a 40-20 decision over Middle Tennessee on Sept. 7.
The team entered its Oct. 26 meeting with Boston College at an ugly 0-3 in league play, falling to Georgia Tech (28-20), Virginia Tech (27-17) and Miami- Florida (27-23).
An injury to QB Bryn Renner in the seventh game allowed sophomore Marquise Williams to take over under center. The result was a strong finish that included a five-game win streak starting with the game against the Eagles (34-10). UNC dropped its regular-season finale to the surprising Duke Blue Devils, but finished the year on a strong note by routing Cincinnati (39-17) in the Belk Bowl.
The difference on the offensive side of the football was night and day, as UNC averaged an impressive 40.6 points per game over the final seven outings. A big part of that success was the incredible return talents of freshman Ryan Switzer, who led the nation in punt return yards and tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns.
OFFENSE: Renner put up some big numbers as North Carolina's quarterback, but things seemed to click for Williams in the second half of 2013 and the sky is the limit in 2014. Williams was a dual-threat, completing 58 percent of his passes, for 1,698 yards and 15 TDs, while leading the team in rushing, with 536 yards and another six scores. Pushing for playing time under center will also be redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky (6-3, 215).
Fedora likes what he has at the QB position this year.
"I'll tell you, Mitch and Marquise, both of them, first of all, both can beat you with their legs, they both can beat you with their arms. They're both very intelligent kids. Marquise obviously has the most experience of the two, and he came in under some tough circumstances last year and did a great job for us, led us to a bowl game and won the bowl game, so Mitch does not have the experience that he has.
"They have done a tremendous job pushing each other all spring, all summer, and I would say right now watching them develop as leaders has been really pleasing for me, so I'm excited to see how this thing shakes out."
Eight other starters return on offense, providing plenty of optimism heading into the campaign. The ground attack will once again be paced by Williams and sophomore tailback T.J. Logan (533 yards, four TDs).
The passing attack will sorely miss All-American tight end Eric Ebron, but a deep receiving corps will once again showcase talented wideouts like Quinshad Davis (48 receptions, 730 yards, 10 TDs) and the aforementioned Switzer (32 receptions, 341 yards, three TDs).
Williams is very comfortable with Switzer.
"I'm excited to get the ball to the playmakers that we have like Ryan Switzer. That's my little -- I call my jitter bug because he's like a little jitter bug and he's always nagging people and he's all across the field."
DEFENSE: The North Carolina defense rushed the passer very well a year ago, amassing 31 sacks in 2013. However, a big part of that pass rush, defensive end Kareem Martin (82 tackles, 10 TFL, 11.5 sacks) has moved on, who picked up some All-America accolades in 2013. The pass rush this year will be spearheaded by senior Norkeithus Otis, who posted 7.5 sacks among his 49 total stops.
The linebacking corps for UNC may be one of the ACC's best this season, highlighted by players like senior Travis Hughes (76 tackles) and junior Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles).
The secondary is young and talented, with only one senior among the starters and that being free safety Tim Scott (49 tackles, two INTs). Sophomore safety Dominique Green (59 tackles, three INTs) had a strong freshman campaign last year. Junior safety Sam Smiley will try to finally stay healthy and contribute to what looks to be a deep secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game should be in good shape with a pair of seniors returning to their roles. Thomas Moore will once again handle the place kicking after going 14-of-19 in field-goal attempts last year, with a long of 40 yards. Tommy Hibbard averaged a steady 43 yards per punt and placed 25 inside the 20-yard line. Switzer is dynamic in the punt return game, while Logan (two TDs) adds a weapon on kick returns.
OUTLOOK: North Carolina is loaded with talent and may be the top team in the Coastal Division when all is said and done.
The schedule sets up nicely, with non-conference foes Liberty, San Diego State, East Carolina and Notre Dame on the docket, with the Oct. 11 showdown with the Irish in South Bend representing the toughest challenge.
The Tar Heels avoid both Florida State and Louisville in conference this season, but must travel to Clemson to open conference play on Sept. 27. A win in Death Valley could propel UNC through an ACC schedule that has few pitfalls. A road trip to Miami in early November and a midweek showdown with Duke a couple of weeks later could be tough.
Still, if North Carolina plays up to its potential, an divisional crown and double-digit victories are within grasp.