Mack Brown's return to coach North Carolina in December 2018 was met with polarizing opinions. It had been five years since Brown coached college football, and there was a feeling among some that his best days were long behind him. Others, however, praised the hire of a charismatic recruiter and CEO type who knew the ins and outs of the program from having coached there in the 1980s and '90s. 

Whatever you thought of the hire at the time, the early returns look promising. Brown has recruited his tail off -- the Tar Heels finished with a top-20 class in 2019 and have a top-five class heading into this summer -- and won seven games in his first year back at the helm. And, goodness, were the Tar Heels must-see television. Nine of their 13 games last year were decided by a touchdown or less. While finishing wasn't always North Carolina's forte, there's tons of returning talent for 2020. In Year 2, Brown is already looking to have this team contend for an ACC divisional title -- maybe more. 

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 44 | Achievements: Won 55-13 vs. Temple in the Military Bowl 

The Tar Heels were masochists for close games, going 3-6 in contests decided by one possession. That included a six-overtime loss to Virginia Tech and a one-point loss to juggernaut Clemson. While it wouldn't be fair to call North Carolina "unlucky," those types of coin-flip results can mean the difference in a nine-win season and a five-win season. While North Carolina finished with a more middle-of-the-road 7-6 record, there's a lot more optimism about Brown's team heading into Year 2. 

Key departures

DT Aaron Crawford: North Carolina is losing two key members from its defensive front. Crawford was an honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2019 after finishing with nine tackles for loss and three sacks. 

DT Jason Strowbridge: The second of two impact players leaving the D-line, Strowbridge was picked up by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Last season he had six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks from the defensive tackle spot. 

DB Myles Dorn: A longtime starter at safety, Dorn was third on the team with 83 tackles and tied for second with a pair of interceptions. He was a veteran in an otherwise young defensive backfield. 

OL Charlie Heck: Basically a three-year starter at tackle, Heck saw action in more than 40 games with 34 career starts on both sides of the line. The Heels are moving on from a couple of offensive linemen, but Heck is the biggest standout. 

Who's back?

QB Sam Howell: The ACC's Rookie of the Year is fresh off a season in which he threw for 3,663 yards and 32 touchdowns -- 12 of which came in the final quarter. That was more than any other period. Howell's knack for clutch performances needs to be filled out with more consistency from the start, but there's no denying he's a gamer who is already one of the league's best passers. 

The entire WR unit: The scary part about North Carolina's offense is that it returns practically all of its receiving production from 2019. There are playmakers everywhere. Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown each eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving and combined for 22 touchdowns. But there's scary depth, too, with Beau Corrales and Antoine Green. In all, UNC is rolling six or seven deep at wideout. 

LB Chazz Surratt: The Tar Heels' leading tackler from 2019 was a first team All-ACC selection and should be one of the conference's top linebackers again in 2020. He's been especially good at getting into the backfield with 15 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries. Not bad for a former Tar Heels quarterback himself. 

Fresh faces

DT Kedrick Bingley-Jones: With Crawford and Strowbridge moving on, Bingley-Jones has an opportunity to step in right away and provide depth along the defensive line, particularly along the edge. Jones was a four-star member of the Tar Heels' 2020 class. 

WR Josh Downs: I mentioned that North Carolina's wide receiver room is loaded, but Downs should still see some playing time as a freshman. The four-star wideout from Georgia was the top-ranked member of UNC's 2020 class. 

DB Kyler McMichael: There are a lot of returning players in the secondary. McMichael, a transfer from Clemson, should boost the competition there along with fellow transfer Bryce Watts

Critical games

Week 1 at UCF -- Sept. 4: North Carolina doesn't waste any time with a road trip to UCF on Friday night in Week 1. It remains to be seen whether Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton will be able to play, but this is a formidable opponent regardless of its Group of Five status. The Tar Heels can get off to an impressive start with a win here. 

Week 2 vs. Auburn -- Sept. 12: Things go from hard to harder in Week 2 when North Carolina heads to Atlanta to play Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Though it's considered a neutral-site game, don't be surprised if it feels like a second straight road trip for the Heels. We should learn a lot about this team after two weeks as they'll have been tested as much as any other. 

Week 6 vs. Virginia Tech -- Oct. 10: A key battle in the ACC Coastal race takes place in mid-October. North Carolina hosts the Hokies nearly one year after -- and I repeat -- losing a six-overtime game in Blacksburg. North Carolina won't be tested much once it gets into conference play thanks to a soft cross-divisional slate, so this may be its biggest home game of the year. 

Week 8 at Miami (FL) -- Oct. 24: This should be the last major test for the Coastal crown and rights to (likely) face Clemson in the conference title game probably come down to the result of this game. The Hurricanes are one of the few Coastal contenders and the game's in south Florida. 

2020 outlook

After coming up agonizingly short in half its games last year, North Carolina gets a bit of a scheduling break in 2020. They don't have to face Clemson or Florida State out of the Atlantic Division (or Notre Dame), and the Coastal is, in a word, winnable. The hardest stretch is at the beginning of the season when it faces UCF and Auburn away from Chapel Hill. The best-case scenario is UNC surprises by going 2-0 against those opponents. If that's the case, we might be talking about a 10 or even 11-win team. More realistically, Brown improves on his debut and this team contends for an ACC Championship Game berth. If nothing else, this squad should be fun to watch with all that offensive firepower coming back.