Throughout the next couple of weeks we’ll be checking in with some of the nonconference opponents facing off against Big Ten teams in 2016 to provide a better idea of what to expect out of the less-familiar opponents on this year’s league slate. We continue now with North Carolina.
Opponent: North Carolina (at Illinois, Sept. 10)
Offseason storyline: Probably the biggest thing that happened for the Tar Heels this offseason had little to do with anything on the field. The football program appeared to be let off the NCAA hook in a new notice of allegations regarding the long-simmering academic scandal in Chapel Hill. While there still could be some penalties down the road, that development came as a big relief to Larry Fedora and everyone else who had been operating under a cloud of potential sanctions. Other than that, the biggest story surrounded Mitch Trubisky earning the starting quarterback nod this spring as he seeks to succeed Marquise Williams under center.
What’s at stake for Illinois? This will only be Lovie Smith's second game as the Illini head coach, and given that his debut will come against Murray State, it will present his first major challenge. Since Smith didn't come on board until March and fans understand that a rebuild must take place, he's not exactly burdened by expectations. That's a good thing, because even a defensive whiz like him will have a tough time stopping a North Carolina offense that averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per play and over 40 points per game last season. Illinois lost 48-14 in Chapel Hill last year, so it can't get much worse than that. Illinois will be a huge underdog here, though Smith will also have a huge opportunity to make an early statement about the direction of his program.
What’s at stake for North Carolina? The Tar Heels made it to the ACC championship game last season and were even being talked about as fringe playoff contenders after a surprising 11-2 regular season. Mark Schlabach ranked them No. 19 in his most recent too-early Top 25. The trip to Champaign, however, looms as a potential trap game; UNC opens the year with a big game against Georgia in Atlanta in what could be a physical affair. Most people probably won't pay much attention to what Fedora's crew does against Illinois -- unless it gets upset. That would be a big disappointment for a team that looks like it is on the rise.