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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 10 North Carolina has Sam Howell to build around

North Carolina head coach Mack Brown has turned things around for the Tar Heels, who have won 15 games and a pair of bowl appearances in his first two seasons after going a combined 5-18 the two years prior.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 10 North Carolina

Mack Brown is only adding to a coaching career that's already earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. Brown, who turned North Carolina into a national contender during his decade-long tenure from 1989-97, took over the Tar Heels again in 2019, turning a program that had gone 5-18 in 2017-18 to 15 wins and a pair of bowl appearances the past two seasons. This year's team looks to be his best in Chapel Hill since the 1997 Heels went 11-1 and won the Gator Bowl, and it may just be Brown's most talented squad since his 2009 Texas Longhorns fell to Alabama in the BCS championship game. Can blue-chip quarterback Sam Howell and a veteran roster contend with Clemson for the ACC title?

North Carolina was 18th in our preseason poll last year. The Tar Heels were 13th in the final CFP rankings, 18th in the final AP poll and 17th in the coaches'.

About the Tar Heels

2020: 8-4, 7-3 in the ACC — tied for fourth place behind Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami. They lost 41-27 to Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl.

Coach: Mack Brown, 259-132-1 — 84-56-1 in 12 years at North Carolina (15-10 in the last two seasons, his second stint at UNC). He's also coached at Texas, Tulane and Appalachian State.

Returning starters: 18 (8 offense, 10 defense)

Shoes to fill: RB Javonte Williams (Broncos, 2nd round); LB Chazz Surratt (Vikings, 3rd); WR Dyami Brown (Washington Football Team, 3rd); RB Michael Carter (Jets, 4th); WR Dazz Newsome (Bears, 6th) 

North Carolina lost two talented running backs to the NFL draft in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, but the addition of Tennessee's Ty Chandler should help keep the running game churning. Chandler rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his four seasons with the Vols.

Catching up

Brown has always been a masterful recruiter, and his best courting job during the offseason may have been on his own campus. Despite the arrival of two talented recruiting classes, no notable Tar Heels entered the transfer portal. ... North Carolina lost several skill players to the draft, including both of last year’s primary running backs. Brown promptly welcomed Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler to fill the backfield gap; the 6-1, 200-pound workhorse rumbled for more than 2,000 yards during his four years with the Vols and looks ready to carry a heavy load. ... Back to Brown and his recruiting: the Tar Heels signed 13 four-star recruits in their 2021 class — which was four more than Texas signed — and inked five-star defensive end Keeshawn Silver, who should get immediate playing time for a defense that allowed 401 yards and 29 points per game last season. 

Returning leaders

Passing: Sam Howell 237-348-3,586, 30/7 (led team)

Rushing: QB Sam Howell 92-236-5 (3rd)

Receiving: Khafre Brown 15-337-2 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Jeremiah Gemmel 78 (2nd), DB Cam'Ron Kelly 55 (3rd)

Sacks: LB Tomon Fox 7 (led team), DL Tomari Fox 4 (3rd)

Interceptions: LB Jeremiah Gemmel, DB Don Chapman, DB Trey Morrison, DB Tony Grimes, DB Ladaeson DeAndre Hollins, DB Giovanni Biggers and DB Cameron Roseman-Sinclair, 1 (tied for team lead)

Returning all-conference

Offense: Sam Howell (2nd team), OL Joshua Ezeudu (3rd), OL Jordan Tucker (hon. mention), OL Marcus McKethan (hon. mention), C Brian Anderson (hon. mention)

Defense: DT Ray Vohasek (hon. mention), LB Tomon Fox (hon. mention), DB Trey Morrison (hon. mention)

With Notre Dame moving back to independent status this season and no longer contending for the ACC championship, North Carolina expects to fight Clemson and Miami for this year's conference crown.

FYI

How the pandemic impacted North Carolina: The last time the Tar Heels went three weeks without a game during the regular season, a polio pandemic was raging across the country in 1952. But a similar stretch sidelined Carolina between a season-opening win over Syracuse on Sept. 12 and a taut victory over Boston College Oct. 3. The program avoided any other coronavirus suspensions the rest of the season, and Brown has been outspoken all offseason about the necessity of vaccinations. 

Howelling for more: Expectations can’t get much higher for Howell, a sturdy 6-1, 200-pounder who plays with a flair that has drawn comparisons to former Lake Travis star and current Cleveland Browns starter Baker Mayfield. USA Today projects the junior quarterback from the Charlotte suburbs as the No. 2 overall pick of the 2022 draft, which would make him only the second UNC quarterback to get drafted in the first round. Chicago drafted Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 pick in 2017. 

Former Eagle WR still soaring: Georgetown graduate Beau Corrales, who ended his high school career in 2016, will return for a sixth season after the NCAA announced an extra year of eligibility for any athlete. The 6-3, 210-pound Corrales only played five games last season because of an injury, but he had 141 receiving yards in a win over Florida State on Oct. 17. He has 80 receptions for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns in his collegiate career, and he could be in for a heavy workload since the Tar Heels lost two starting receivers to the draft. 

2020 national stat rankings

Where North Carolina ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Tar Heels ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 9th (2019 — T-30th, +21 spots)

Scoring defense: 65th (44th, -21)

Total offense: 5th (12th, +7)

Total defense: 58th (49th, -9)

Passing: 18th (25th, +7)

Pass defense: 87th (71st, -16)

Rushing: 11th (38th, +27)

Rush defense: 50th (51st, +1)

Sacks: 16th (49th, +33)

Interceptions: 46th (17th, -29)

Red zone offense: 23rd (T-31st, +8)

Red zone defense: 93rd (54th, -39)

Turnover margin: 73rd (T-19th, -54)

Time of possession: 46th (56th, +10)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 9 team. Want a hint?

This school competed in a conference in 2020, but won't this season.