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North Carolina Tar Heels 2016 season preview

2015 record: 11-3 (8-0 in ACC)

For years, North Carolina has been discussed as a sleeping giant with talent and potential, but few wins to match. That all changed last year, as Larry Fedora's team reeled off 11 straight victories to end the regular season before falling to Clemson in the ACC championship game. The offense, led by tailback Elijah Hood, was spectacular, finishing with the second-highest scoring rate (52.9 percent of all drives ended with points) in the country. The defense had its frustrations (see: Baylor 49, UNC 38) but overall, Gene Chizik made huge strides in his first year as coordinator. And now the bulk of last year's team returns with expectations as high as any point in recent memory.

Three storylines to watch:

Will it be a smooth transition at quarterback?

It has almost been taken for granted that North Carolina won't miss a beat with Mitch Trubisky stepping in at quarterback for the departed Marquise Williams, but perhaps that's a big assumption. After all, few QBs in the country matched Williams' production over the past two seasons, and while Trubisky has plenty of talent, he has never been asked to take the lead role on the team. Still, the talent surrounding Trubisky will be exceptional, from a strong offensive line to a deep corps of receivers.

Can the defensive front make a big improvement?

The plan for Chizik's defense in Year 1 was simple enough: Don't allow big plays and don't give up yards after contact. It was largely successful. The secondary emerged as a strength, with Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart blossoming into stars. Up front, though? That was a big of a struggle. Look no further than the bowl game, where Baylor ran up a whopping 645 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. There should be some natural improvement this year, Chizik believes, as the starters are used to the system and he can afford to be a bit more aggressive in his play-calling. Still, if UNC wants to compete on the big stage with the likes of Florida State and Clemson, it's going to need to make a big leap on the defensive line.

Are the Tar Heels ready to win a big game?

As great as last year was for UNC, the Tar Heels lost all three times they played in the national spotlight. The opener was an inexplicable defeat to South Carolina, and the challenge will get even tougher this year with a matchup against SEC heavyweight Georgia. The ACC title game showed North Carolina can compete, but Clemson still controlled much of the game. And the bowl? The less said about that the better for the Tar Heels. The schedule is tougher all around this year, so it's not going to be enough for North Carolina to simply rout its lesser opponents. The next step is proving its place on the biggest stages.