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Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: North Carolina

This ACC Coastal contender is led by a Heisman-hopeful quarterback. Just three seasons ago, the program wrapped up a 2–9 season, with only five wins in its last 24 games. An N.C. State overtime victory over the Tar Heels was marred by a brawl between the two programs, and suspensions were dished out. In the span of two days afterward, then head coach Larry Fedora was ousted and Mack Brown was brought back to the helm. He revived the program, flipping current Heisman contender Sam Howell from FSU to UNC just weeks after he was hired and championing UNC to 7–6 and 8–4 records with a New Year’s Six bowl in 2020.

Now, the program has the pieces to make a run for the ACC championship, even though it is without four of the quarterback’s favorite targets—running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, and wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. North Carolina is expected to lean heavily on Howell, who passed for 3,586 yards in 2020 and scored 68 touchdowns through his first two seasons—breaking Trevor Lawrence’s previous ACC record of 66—as the quarterback develops new offensive chemistry.

UNC football QB Sam Howell

Can't Miss: Beau Corrales

There are many holes in UNC’s pass-catching unit, but there’s one veteran name that should ring a bell for fans: Corrales. The wide receiver showed signs of a breakout season after tallying four catches, 141 yards and a single touchdown against Florida State, but a midseason injury sidelined him for seven games. In 2019, he ranked third on the team with 40 catches, 575 receiving yards and six (receiving) touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo told The Athletic that Corrales is poised to be “the guy” for the squad, assuming the senior stays healthy.

Key Question: The QB-WR rapport

Will Howell be able to find the same magic-making chemistry after four of his favorite targets left for the NFL? Possibly. Aside from Corrales’s leading the receiver corps, fans should keep an eye on Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler, who is said to be somewhere between the talent of the record-breaking RB duo Williams and Carter. The veteran running back rushed for 456 yards and four touchdowns last season, totaling 2,046 rushing yards in his Vols career.

X-Factor: The line of scrimmage

This has been a sticking point for the program due to the lack of depth on both sides of the ball. In the last two seasons, Brown has remarked on how not being able to rotate players in often and largely relying on just a couple of players rather than an entire unit has hurt the Heels. But now, all five offensive line starters from 2020 are returning, and the head coach said during ACC Kickoff that they’ve been able to play two O-lines. As one of the most veteran groups at the position in the conference, the unit will need to limit the number of sacks, after allowing 34 in 2020. Meanwhile on defense, one of Brown’s goals this offseason was a stronger first-down defense, even with a younger defensive unit. The team has struggled to create turnovers in the past and will aim to force teams to second- and third-and-long downs.

Watch the North Carolina Tar Heels online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!

Date to Circle: Oct. 30 at Notre Dame

While UNC has an ACC Coastal battle on its hands early with Virginia Tech opening weekend and with Miami midseason, playing in South Bend the day before Halloween will be one of the Tar Heels’ toughest games. Even with Howell and its old offensive weapons, North Carolina lost to the Fighting Irish in Chapel Hill, 31–17, last season.

The Bottom Line

North Carolina has the pieces to make a run at the ACC championship, potentially snagging a rematch against powerhouse Clemson to avenge the 21–20 loss from two seasons ago. 

More Top 25 Team Previews:

No. 19 Penn State
No. 18 Florida
No. 15 Miami

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