"When the schedule first came out, I was like, ‘this is insane,'" junior tight end Eric Ebron told reporters on Monday.
Three opponents – No. 7 Miami, No. 16 Virginia Tech and No. 20 South Carolina – were ranked in Sunday's initial BCS standings, while East Carolina (5-2) is battling for the Conference USA East division crown and Georgia Tech (4-3) is on track to qualify for its 17th-straight bowl appearance. Only Middle Tennessee - UNC's lone victory in 2013 - owns a losing record (3-4).
North Carolina's early-season slate ranks as the fourth-most difficult schedule nationally, according to USA Today's Jeff Sagarin.
"We understand that, but we're not going to use it as a crutch," senior quarterback Bryn Renner said. "We go into every game [knowing] that every game is going to be a battle for us. We have a tough schedule, but I'd rather play tough teams than play cupcakes. That's just the way our team is built. Can we lean on that? Yes. Are we going to? No."
The good news for the Tar Heels is that their strength of schedule will plummet as the season winds to a close. While four of UNC's first six opponents rank 33rd or higher in Sagarin's ratings, Pittsburgh stands tallest at No. 56 in the second half of the schedule. Duke (57th), Boston College (58th), N.C. State (90th) and Virginia (94th) round out the remaining FBS-level competition.
UNC's first six opponents have combined for a 29-12 record to date, compared with a 21-18 mark for its final six opponents, which includes FCS member Old Dominion.
UNC has to win five of its last six games to become bowl eligible.
As for the Tar Heels' locker room morale, head coach Larry Fedora indicated his players are still on task. He also stressed his team's improvement in recent weeks despite losses to No. 16 Virginia Tech and No. 7 Miami.
"You circle the wagons, you keep working hard, you keep investing everything you've got, you keep believing in each other and eventually good things are going to happen," Fedora said.
When asked what UNC would play for after its 1-5 start, Ebron replied: "Hopefully a bowl game."
"Play for ourselves," he continued. "Play knowing what we can do and knowing how to do it. We're really right now playing for our respect and our pride for the rest of the season."
Next up for North Carolina is Boston College, which is coming off a bye week after faltering late in its upset bid of No. 9 Clemson on Oct. 12.