North Carolina season preview

Today we're looking at UNC, which returns one of the nation's most accurate passers ...

North Carolina Tar Heels

Coach: Larry Fedora (42-23 overall, 8-4 at UNC)

2012 record: 8-4

Key losses: RB Giovani Bernard, G Jonathan Cooper, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick

Key returnees: QB Bryn Renner, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, S Tre Boston

Newcomer to watch: Running back Khris Francis quickly made headlines as an early enrollee with his performance in the spring game. With the early departure of standout Giovani Bernard to the NFL, the Tar Heels are looking for some help in the running game. While A.J. Blue and Romar Morris are the leading candidates to do that, Francis showed some big-time potential this spring. He had a game-high 101 yards on 20 carries in the spring game.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 at South Carolina, Sept. 21 at Georgia Tech, Oct. 5 at Virginia Tech, Oct. 17 vs. Miami.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: How the running game will fare without Bernard and his lead blocker. It’s not just Bernard who the Tar Heels will miss. Equally as important is the hole that was left by Cooper up front. Caleb Peterson, a redshirt freshman from Auburn, Ala., is slated to take that job, and while he was the No. 11 guard in his recruiting class, according to ESPN.com, there will still be some adjusting to his new role. North Carolina’s offensive line will still be solid and experienced, especially with Hurst returning, but Bernard was a special player who also will be missed in the return game.

Forecast: North Carolina’s offseason was much smoother, just for the simple fact that the Tar Heels were more comfortable after one year in Fedora’s system. With a veteran quarterback returning in Bryn Renner, UNC is looking to build upon last year’s success and is further motivated by the fact that this year the program is actually eligible to play in the ACC title game after serving a one-year postseason ban.

Whether they can actually win the division depends on how efficient the running game is without Bernard, and if the defense can find some playmakers and leaders to replace Williams and Reddick. There are high expectations that senior defensive end Kareem Martin will be one of the best in the conference, and Carolina returns all four starters in the secondary, including safety Tre’ Boston, who led the team in tackles with 86 and tied cornerback Tim Scott for the most interceptions with four.

Offensively, Renner should be one of the best in the country, and he’s on the verge of setting nearly every school career passing record. He has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. While Renner is the face of the offense, running back A.J. Blue is “the heart and soul of the team,” according to Fedora. Blue is penciled in as the starter this fall, and he was second on the team in rushing a year ago with 433 yards and nine touchdowns.

Overall, North Carolina has enough talent returning that it should again be a contender in the Coastal Division race. The schedule, though, isn’t going to be easy, as some of UNC’s toughest games are on the road. The Tar Heels have to play at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and at Pittsburgh, and a nationally televised Thursday night home game against Miami will help determine the division winner.