On the surface, a 7-6 season is anything but spectacular. But for the North Carolina football team — which had won just five games total in its previous two seasons — 2019's result sent shock waves through a program that desperately needed a jolt of excitement.
In head coach Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels put together a winning record for the first time in three years, won their first bowl game since 2013 and unified a previously dormant fan base in the belief that Mack was back.
The Tar Heels were led by quarterback Sam Howell, who put together a record-setting campaign in his first season in Chapel Hill. The first-year — who flipped his commitment from national power Florida State after Brown was chosen to helm UNC — threw for 3,641 yards and an FBS true first-year record 38 touchdowns on his way to winning ACC Rookie of the Year.
But the player perhaps most representative of North Carolina’s culture change was junior Chazz Surratt. When Surratt started his career as a Tar Heel in 2017, he was a quarterback. After appearing in 10 games across two years behind center, he moved to linebacker in 2019.
Surratt filled his new role within North Carolina’s defense effectively from day one. After a relatively average tenure as quarterback for UNC, the junior became one of the Tar Heels’ best players, notching a team-best 115 total tackles, 6.5 sacks and intercepting a would-be game-winning pass from Duke’s Deon Jackson at the goal line to win the Victory Bell.
Just a year removed from being in UNC’s quarterback room, Surratt is now touted as one of the top linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Early wins over South Carolina and Miami — along with a one-point loss to then-No. 1 Clemson — ignited momentum in what was largely viewed as a rebuilding year for UNC. That momentum will serve the Tar Heels well entering Brown’s second year in Chapel Hill.
With UNC’s offense returning 10 of 11 starters, and Brown’s staff bringing in the No. 19 incoming recruiting class in the nation, many outlets have the Tar Heels slated as a preseason top-25 team.
If the season kicks off as expected on Sept. 4, the Tar Heels will face back-to-back tests against Central Florida and Auburn — two programs that have been near the top of college football in recent years.
If UNC is able to come away with wins in one or both of these games, they could be set on an early trajectory toward a potential New Year’s Six bowl appearance. Regardless of the postseason, the Tar Heels' eyes are likely set on winning the ACC Coastal Division for the first time since 2015.
Some other games to circle on UNC’s schedule include back-to-back games against Coastal Division rivals Virginia and Virginia Tech to start October, an Oct. 17 matchup against Duke and a Nov. 27 date with N.C. State to close out the regular season.
Heading into 2020, North Carolina will look to make noise in the ACC and beyond for the first time during Brown’s second tenure since his return to Chapel Hill. Two early litmus tests to start the season will reveal if UNC will live up to the hype created following the team’s 55-13 walloping of Temple in the Military Bowl and a series of impressive performances in 2019.
With the ACC wide open behind national power Clemson, Mack Brown’s squad will have the chance to work its way into the national spotlight in 2020.
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