I didn't quite expect this sort of tumble by North Carolina this season. Photo: USA Today Sports
Before the 2013 college football season kicked off I had this Thursday night match-up between Miami and North Carolina mentally circled. This was supposed to be a huge game in the ACC's Coastal Division, one that could determine the fate of the division with the winner taking control of a path to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game, a destination that the Hurricanes and Tar Heels have missed the exit for since the game was first introduced in 2005. As it turns out, the game still carries importance in the division, but it is not quite of the same magnitude I had envisioned in the summer.
Miami has held up their end of the bargain, entering tonight's game with a 5-0 start and rounding out the top ten of the AP Top 25 and knocking on the door step of it in the Coaches Poll. The Hurricanes have knocked off Florida for their signature win of the season, running back Duke Johnson has an outside shot at the Heisman Trophy and quarterback Stephen Morris remains in the mix for the Golden Arm Award. The Hurricanes could realistically reach November 2 with a clean 7-0 record when they visit rival Florida State, who could also be undefeated at that point if they get by on the road at Clemson this weekend. Miami is right about where I thought they could be at this point, even if I did think they would lose to Florida.
But I was wrong about North Carolina. Dead wrong.
Larry Fedora was my preseason pick for ACC Coach of the Year and I picked the Tar Heels to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game (where they would lose to Clemson). Let's look back at what I said about UNC before the season started…
"In 2013 I'm siding with the Tar Heels, although I expect it to be a tight race with the Hurricanes for the Coastal Division championship."
Hindsight: Miami has a two-game lead in the loss column on UNC entering tonight. A win would extend that lead to three games. It might be a tight race for the Coastal, but it will be tight between Miami and Virginia Tech (Hokies are 3-0 in ACC play and sitting in first place in the division at the moment).
"UNC has a veteran secondary and defensive line. If they can plug in new linebackers easily enough they should be in good shape for the fall with an offense that Larry Fedora is continuing to develop nicely."
Hindsight: Nothing about North Carolina's defense has been admirable this season. The Tar Heels are ranked last in the 14-team ACC in total defense, allowing a gashing 5.62 yards per play. The Tar Heels are last in the ACC against the run, allowing 197 yards per game, and that secondary I was optimistic about is part of the ACC's 13th ranked pass defense, allowing the second highest passer rating in the conference and ten touchdowns with just four interceptions through five games.
Oh, and about that offense… the Tar Heels are averaging almost 100 fewer yards per game this season. Yes, losing Giovani Bernard was a huge piece of that puzzle but I suppose I did not expect the drop off to be quite as dramatic. More alarming is the drop-off in points per game this season. North Carolina is averaging 17 fewer points per game this season than they averaged last fall. That is a huge number, and the largest drop off by far within the ACC (I have not checked that number compared to teams in other conferences but I will go out on a limb and suggest it is certainly up there).
"Quarterback Bryn Renner will have some experienced targets to connect with, including All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron."
Hindsight: I obviously had no clue Renner would injure his footb, so I would like to ask for a mulligan on that one, although he has had his less than memorable moments so far when he has played. Ebron has been the top receiver for North Carolina, so I at least fell inside the ballpark on this one. Entering Thursday night's game Ebron leads the Tar Heels with 333 receiving yards and is second o the team with two touchdowns. Quinshad Davis is just a sophomore but played all 12 games last year. He i the second-leading receiver on the team but leads the team with four touchdown receptions.
So here we are in the middle of October and my preseason pick to win the ACC Coastal Division sits at the bottom of the division standings and is 1-4 overall, which means the postseason fate is starting to fade in Chapel Hill. Three more losses and North Carolina will miss the postseason for the second straight year under Fedora, although this time will not be due to NCAA sanctions, technically. It is clear that recruiting sanctions have held North Carolina back in some areas, just as they have at USC and Penn State. Perhaps I should have given that more respect in the offseason rather than take the optimistic approach in believing they would be just fine this season.
The postseason is not entirely out of the question yet, even if North Carolina should lose to Miami at home Thursday night, but the back-end of the schedule appears more daunting than it may have before the start of the year. Boston College is an improved team right now that has already given the likes of Clemson and Florida State a little bit of a tussle before falling back. A road game at North Carolina State is never one to overlook and when UNC travels to Pittsburgh it may just be a matter of which Pitt team shows up that day. Ending the season at home against Duke could be interesting, with the Blue Devils looking like the best team in the state right now for the second straight year.
Yes, I may be willing to give UNC time to turn things around under Fedora before getting overly concerned about the program, but as for 2013 I am ready to accept ridicule for being so blatantly wrong about this team.