On the plus side, Mack Brown's North Carolina Tar Heels made it to a bowl game in his first year. On the other side, all six of his losses were b a touchdown or less. (Rob Kinnan/USA Today)


Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: Was it a mirage, or is Mack back? No. 18 North Carolina hopes so

All six losses last year were close losses, offering hope in Brown's second season back in Chapel Hill

Posted July 8th, 2020


The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 18 North Carolina

Should fans and pundits believe in Mack’s magic? Naysayers can rightfully point out that North Carolina only won seven games and barely secured a bowl berth during Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill. The believers, though, will point out that North Carolina went 2-9 in 2018. The Tar Heels won their final three games by a combined score of 152-30 and a lot of talent is returning to the offense. Clemson needs someone to play in the ACC title game. Why can’t North Carolina beat out Virginia Tech and Miami for that gig?


North Carolina wasn’t ranked in our preseason poll last year.


About the Tar Heels

2019: 7-6, 4-4 in the ACC; beat Temple 55-13 in the Military Bowl

Coach: Mack Brown (245-123-1 overall, 76-52 in 11 years at North Carolina)

Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense

Shoes to fill: DL Jason Strowbridge (all-conference); OL Charlie Heck (all-conference); DL Aaron Crawford (all-conference); DB Myles Dorn (all-conference)


Catching up

North Carolina signed the nation’s 19th-best class in the 2020 recruiting cycle. And Tony Grimes, a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 1-rated cornerback, has been joined by 11 four-star pledges in the 2021 class, which currently ranks third nationally behind only Ohio State and Clemson. … North Carolina has two new coaches in Jovan Dewitt (special teams, outside linebackers) and John Lilly (tight ends). … Heck (Houston, fourth round) and Strowbridge (fifth round, Miami) were selected in the NFL draft. … Brown, who won 158 games and a national championship at Texas, could conceivably pass Nebraska’s Tom Osborne (255 wins) for seventh place on college football’s all-time wins chart this season.


North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell threw 38 touchdowns last season (a school record) and he ranked second in the country among freshman quarterbacks in passing yards. He has his two top receiving threats back this year. (James Guillory/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Sam Howell (led team), 259-422-3,641 yards, 38 TDs, 7 INTs

Rushing: RB Michael Carter (1st), 177-1,003-3; RB Javonte Williams (2nd), 166-933-5

Receiving: WR Dyami Brown (1st), 51-1,034-12; WR Dazz Newsome (2nd), 72-1,018-10

Tackles: LB Chazz Surratt (1st), 115; LB Jeremiah Gemmel (2nd), 84

Sacks: LB Chazz Surratt (t-1st), 6.5; LB Tomon Fox (t-1st), 6.5

Interceptions: DB Myles Wolfolk (1st), 3


Returning all-conference

Offense: WR Dazz Newsome (2nd team); QB Sam Howell (3rd); RB Michael Carter (3rd); WR Dyami Brown (3rd); RB Javonte Williams (hon. mention); AP Michael Carter (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Chazz Surratt (1st)


Close calls: The Tar Heels may have been a lot better last year than their 7-6 record suggests. All six of North Carolina’s losses came by seven points or less. One of those defeats was a 21-20 loss to Clemson, the eventual national runner-up, in which UNC failed on a two-point conversion with 1:17 left. North Carolina also was beaten by both Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech in overtime. That 43-41 loss to Virginia Tech? That took six extra sessions to decide.

Aerial attack: Last year, Howell ranked second among the nation’s freshmen in passing yards and his 38 touchdowns were a school record. Thanks to the returning talent in his huddle, he could better those numbers this fall. UNC entered last season with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons in its history (Hakeem Nicks’ 1,222-yard season in 2008 was vacated due to NCAA violations). But last season, Brown and Newsome both topped 1,000 yards. A third target — Beau Corrales, a rising senior who starred at Georgetown High — turned 40 catches into 575 yards and six scores.

Tough start: The good news? Neither Clemson nor Louisville is on this year’s schedule. In fact, five of the eight schools that the Tar Heels will play in conference play posted losing records in 2019. North Carolina’s schedule isn’t a cakewalk, though. The Tar Heels open against Central Florida (No. 20 in our poll) and Auburn (stay tuned) teams that ranked 24th and 14th in last year’s final AP poll. The first home game is against an FCS team, but James Madison did reach its division’s championship game last year.


2019 national stat rankings

Where North Carolina ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Tar Heels ranked in 2018.

Scoring: T-30th (2018 — 77th)

Scoring defense: 44th (107th)

Total offense: 12th (31st)

Total defense: 49th (105th)

Passing: 25th (47th)

Pass defense: 71st (64th)

Rushing: 38th (44th)

Rush defense: 51st (111th)

Red zone offense: T-31st (78th)

Red zone defense: T-54th (t-69th)

Turnover margin: T-19th (111th)

Time of possession: 56th (101st)


Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: North Carolina Tar Heels


Coming tomorrow

Our No. 17 team. Want a hint?

This school has produced three Heisman Trophy winners — including two in the 1990s.