Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 3, North Carolina
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Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 3, North Carolina

This is the 10th in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 3 is the Oct. 30 meeting at home with North Carolina.


Head Coach: Mack Brown — 259-132-1 (.662) overall in 32 seasons as head coach.

• Entering his third season in his second stint at North Carolina, where he is 15-10 the past two years.

• Brown was 158-48 (.767) in his 16 seasons as the head coach at Texas from 1998-2013, highlighted by the 2005 national title.

• In his first stint at North Carolina from 1988-97, he was 69-46-1 (.599).

• He was 11-23 at Tulane from 1985-87.

• 6-5 at Appalachian State in 1983.

As a sophomore last season, Sam Howell completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
As a sophomore last season, Sam Howell completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. (Neil Redmond/USA TODAY Sports)


Recruiting Rankings 2017-21: 2017 (30th), 2018 (23rd), 2019 (31st), 2020 (12th), 2021 (15th)

2020 Record: 8-4

Brown’s crew made some early waves when it vaulted all the way to No. 5 in the AP poll after a 3-0 start before losing 31-28 to a Florida State team that would finish 3-6. That’s when Brown stated candidly that the operation wasn’t yet mentally prepared to handle prosperity. Two weeks later, they also lost at Virginia, 44-41.

The offense was among the most prolific in the country, but the defense too often displayed little resistance. It showed in shootout wins versus Virginia Tech (56-45) and Wake Forest (59-53, with no overtime).

In the Nov. 27 showdown at home versus Notre Dame, the Irish defense took command after the first two series, limiting the vaunted Tar Heels offense to three points over the final 48 minutes of a 60-minute contest.

North Carolina did earn a New Year’s Six bid to the Orange Bowl, but most of its playmakers, especially on offense, opted out in the 41-27 loss to Texas A&M.

Did You Know … 

Notre Dame’s 19-2 all-time record versus North Carolina is the best winning percentage (.905) against any school it has faced at least 15 times.

The only two defeats came during the 2-8 season in 1960 (12-7) and a 7-6 campaign in 2008 (29-24) at Chapel Hill with Butch Davis as the head coach. The Tar Heels are 0-12 at Notre Dame.

2021 Capsule Summary

Last year’s improvement has placed North Carolina at No. 7 in ESPN’s 2021 way-too-early preseason poll (Notre Dame is No. 15). That will test Brown’s opinion again on whether the team is mature and developed enough to handle success.

Because of many players opting out of the Orange Bowl, UNC returns 20 of a possible 22 starters from that game on offense and defense, with potential first-round pick Sam Howell leading the way at quarterback behind a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters.

However, replacements must be found for the terrific running back tandem of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, as well as top receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, who are also off to the NFL. Tennessee grad transfer Ty Chandler, who has just over 2,000 career yards rushing, should help allay those losses to a degree.

The defense also lost its standout in linebacker Chazz Surratt. Headlining the 2021 crew will be pass-rush specialist Tomon Fox, who has 34 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks on his career resume, and cornerback Tony Grimes, a five-star recruit in 2020 and Rivals’ No. 24 overall player.

Still, plenty of improvement can be made by a unit that allowed 29.4 points per game, ranking 65th nationally.

Why No. 3 In Countdown

There is no “right answer” among North Carolina, Wisconsin and USC on who is 3-2-1 when it comes to assessing the potentially toughest matchup for Notre Dame in 2021. For all we know, it could even be another foe.

For now it’s a coin flip among the Badgers, Tar Heels and Trojans — all of whom have a bye the week before the Notre Dame game (the Fighting Irish also have a bye prior to the USC game). Bye weeks also can be overrated, as the Irish have fared well against their many ACC foes in recent years, or even lost 45-14 at Michigan in 2019 despite having a bye the previous week.

Yet in all of the three aforementioned games for 2021, Notre Dame probably would be only a single-digit favorite, or less than a touchdown.

North Carolina has the makings of a top-15 team in 2021 and should be the favorite in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference for the right to play Clemson in the ACC Championship. However, we also feel it is overrated at No. 7 in the way-too-early ESPN poll for 2021.

Brown has reinvigorated the recruiting and excitement in the North Carolina program, but it demonstrated it isn’t quite yet ready for prime-time action and handling success. Maybe it might be this year, but we don’t quite consider them a consistent “program” yet like a Wisconsin, which has established a top-10 to top-25 identity for just more than a quarter century.

There is an inherent bias to place North Carolina at the third spot instead of second or first because we were amazed last year at how after the Tar Heels’ first two possessions versus the Irish, Notre Dame controlled and physically dominated the game in the 31-17 victory — and that was without All-America safety Kyle Hamilton in the lineup for the last two-and-a-half quarters. This year there is a different defensive coordinator for the Irish.

The Tar Heels catch Notre Dame at an ideal time, coming off the previous week’s showdown with arch rival USC. They need to take better advantage of it than top-25-ranked North Carolina State did in 2017 before coming up on the short end, 35-14.

No. 12: Toledo

No. 11: Navy

No. 10: Georgia Tech

No. 9 Purdue

No. 8 Virginia

No. 7 Stanford

No. 6 Virginia Tech

No. 5 Cincinnati

No. 4 Florida State

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