2011 Season Preview: The North Carolina Tar Heels And That Damned Dark Cloud

North Carolina's defense could be deep and outstanding in 2011, and its offense could be explosive. But with yesterday's NCAA Notice of Allegations, the Tar Heels' on-the-field performance has taken a backseat.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you hate numbers, skip to the words.

Over the last couple of months Brian Fremeau and I have been discussing the best way to handle Ohio State and the fact that they are entering the 2011 season getting ready to field two different teams -- one with Boom Herron, Devier Posey, Mike Adams and Soloman Thomas, and one without. Granted, things became at least slightly more clear when Terrelle Pryor recused himself for good, but the projections are still rather difficult because there is little precedent for what they might be capable of this fall, and when.

What precedent does exist, lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As odd as Ohio State's case seems right now, it cannot hold a candle to what North Carolina went through last year. A large portion of UNC's name-brand players -- defensive tackle Marvin Austin, defensive end Robert Quinn, running back Ryan Houston, receiver Greg Little, cornerback Charles Brown -- combined to play zero games due to random shady dealings and questionable eligibility status. Quite a few others missed at least some time. And this all came about very close to the beginning of the season, so there was little in-advance preparation for the absences.

The result was, somehow, a team that played at an extraordinarily consistent level, albeit a level quite a bit lower than what was projected of them before the suspensions began. We had them projected at 24th in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, and they played at a level about 15 spots lower than that.

UNC's case is actually this close to being a redemptive tale -- the Tar Heels still managed to finish with bowl eligibility and win a ridiculously crazy bowl game, and they return quite a few of 2010's banished players, so things could be looking up. Only...

North Carolina has received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA. Information to follow later today on TarHeelBlue.com.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

NCAA Notice of Allegations Released: [PDF] http://j.mp/NOA_pdfless than a minute ago via bitly Favorite Retweet Reply

We knew this, but UNC case is a perfect storm of NCAA death: Players got paid, agents everywhere, academic fraud, misleading investigators.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

So the moral of this story is: Good thing no one emailed Butch Davis about any of these 9 violations.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

...that cloud is still following UNC around, and it is mighty dark.

Butch Davis, who was hired by Miami in the 1990s to clean up a program run amok and established one of the greatest teams in college football history (the 2001 Hurricanes were No. 6 on this list), showed up in Chapel Hill in 2007 and immediately engineered a bit of a turnaround following the mostly disastrous, six-year tenure of John Bunting. But just as it appeared he might be ready to usher another program into college football's ruling class, things began to take a nasty turn. We preview UNC's 2011 season without knowing who might still be deemed ineligible, what kind of punishment the Tar Heels can expect, and how long until the punishment takes effect. It is an odd game of limbo, and it clouds every word written in this piece. For now, however, we will move forward pretending like "NCAA death" isn't skulking toward the western tip of the Research Triangle.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 7-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 39
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs LSU 24-30 L 30.2 - 25.4 W
18-Sep Georgia Tech 24-30 L 34.2 - 34.8 L
25-Sep at Rutgers 17-13 W 25.5 - 22.0 W
2-Oct East Carolina 42-17 W 25.1 - 20.3 W
9-Oct Clemson 21-16 W 26.6 - 28.5 L
16-Oct at Virginia 44-10 W 38.1 - 22.7 W
23-Oct at Miami 10-33 L 21.3 - 31.6 L
30-Oct William & Mary
21-17 W 21.0 - 27.4 L
6-Nov at Florida State 37-35 W 45.6 - 31.5 W
13-Nov Virginia Tech 10-26 L 23.6 - 25.9 L
20-Nov N.C. State 25-29 L 32.4 - 25.6 W
27-Nov at Duke 24-19 W 27.0 - 23.1 W
30-Dec vs Tennessee 30-27 W 23.2 - 24.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.3 76 23.2 45
Adj. Points Per Game 28.8 49 26.4 51

With a roster under constant upheaval, North Carolina pulled off possibly the most baffling achievement of 2010: they were the most consistent BCS conference team in the country. Not consistently great by any means, just consistent. Other than offensive explosions against Florida State and Virginia, the Tar Heels played at an average to above-average level every single week.

Playing at a consistently solid level against a solid schedule results in quite a bit of drama. Nine of UNC's 13 games were decided by a touchdown or less, and after losing their first two close games, they won six of their next seven. The defense stiffened up late in games despite a thinned-out front seven, and the Heels won eight of their final 11 games overall. Again, there is a lot to like here if not for that damned dark cloud.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 50 42 59
RUSHING 76 70 74 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 44 27 56 84
Standard Downs 38 23 52 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 68 78 65 88
Redzone 83 58 89
Q1 Rk 13 1st Down Rk 33
Q2 Rk 55 2nd Down Rk 70
Q3 Rk 77 3rd Down Rk 53
Q4 Rk 65

North Carolina's was a pass-first offense in 2010, benefiting from high-efficiency passes to check-down options but struggling to generate big plays (at least after this one). It was in this regard that Greg Little's absence was felt. Oft-maligned quarterback T.J. Yates (3,418 yards, 8.1 per pass, 67% completion rate, 19 TD, 9 INT) was incredibly efficient overall, managing the 11th-highest completion percentage in the country; fullback Anthony Elzy (338 receiving yards, 86% catch rate, 296 rushing yards) and tight ends Ryan Taylor, Zack Pianalto and Ed Barham (combined: 767 yards, 9.7 per catch, 70% catch rate) were the primary reason why.

Of course, everybody in the above paragraph is gone now. UNC's passing game is likely to improve in overall explosiveness, but it will be difficult for likely new quarterback Bryn Renner to match Yates' completion rate, because of not only his youth but his options. The return of running back Ryan Houston (713 yards, +1.2 Adj. POE in 2009, not to mention countless parking tickets) from both suspension and injury should help, assuming he recovers fully from offseason shoulder surgery (and is eligible). He better recover, anyway, since 1,357 yards walked out the door when Johnny White and Shaun Draughn (combined: +3.9 Adj. POE) used up their eligibility.

Perhaps as important as finding a strong halfback is finding someone to replace the underrated production of Elzy. It appears seniors Devon Ramsay and Curtis Byrd will top the depth chart at his increasingly rare position.

Other tidbits:

  • UNC's offense was at its best in the first quarter and on first down. As we've learned through the years, that is when it is most important to be good; but we've also learned that big plays are like power chords, the surest way to a hit single good offense, and in that arena, receiver Dwight Jones (946 yards, 15.3 per catch, 69% catch, 4 TD) needs some help. Or at least some more opportunities. Yates leaned on the fullbacks and tight ends (and efficient receiver Joshua Adams), but he perhaps needed to air the ball out a bit more and look for Jones and Jheranie Boyd (310 yards, 22.1 per catch, 52% catch, 3 TD). We'll see where Renner's tendencies take the UNC offense.
  • Three starters return from a line that went through some growing pains. Left tackle James Hurst was thrown into the fire while he was still learning his way around campus; he started 12 games as a true freshman last year. Left guard Jonathan Cooper and center Cam Holland are entering their third year as starting linemen, but the right side of the line will consist of two new starters. Things should get at least a hair better here, but it could still be an overall weakness.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 44 47 45
RUSHING 27 50 25 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 54 56 54 60
Standard Downs 38 40 36 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 35 34 38 59
Redzone 25 31 21
Q1 Rk 73 1st Down Rk 37
Q2 Rk 45 2nd Down Rk 30
Q3 Rk 26 3rd Down Rk 73
Q4 Rk 18

The absences of Houston and (particularly) Little did nothing to help UNC's offense, but most of the losses in last year's suspension fest took place on the defensive side of the ball. Two potential All-American linemen, and the Tar Heels' best cornerback, failed to play a snap. Others (linebacker Quan Sturdivant, end Linwan Euwell, safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams, corner Kendric Burney) were impacted by the suspensions as well. Taking all of this into account, it is simply amazing that this team managed to play even remotely well. It is also impossible not to wonder what could have been with this defense.

The UNC defense was the anti-UNC offense -- it got better as the game progressed. North Carolina games had the tendency to slowly shift from shootouts to defensive battles. In all, the Heels were sturdy against the run but vulnerable to the pass. The pass rush itself struggled, due in part to Robert Quinn's absence; meanwhile, the secondary itself was only average without corner Charles Brown (60.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR, 9 PBU in 2009) and safeties Brian Gupton and Jonathan Smith.

In 2011, the units that struggled should get a lot better, or at least a lot deeper. At end, Quinton Coples (46.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 PBU) and Donte Paige-Moss (38.5 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks) should be ready for a strong season, especially if they are getting a push from sophomores Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Tackles Tydreke Powell (3.0 TFL/sacks) and Jordan Nix got a lot more development time in Austin's absence and could be better for it. Meanwhile, the secondary could be outstanding. Brown returns, as do Gupton and Smith; they join a secondary that includes corner Jabari Price (17.5 tackles, 3 PBU as a true freshman) and safeties Matt Merletti (30.5 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PBU), Tre Boston (28.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 FF, 4 PBU as a true freshman) and Gene Robinson (22.5 tackles, 1 INT). Despite the loss of corners Kendric Burney and LeCount Fantroy, this is a deep, and potentially outstanding, unit.

Other tidbits:

  • Attrition could ding the linebacking corps quite a bit. Two of the Heels' top four linebackers, Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter (combined: 91.5 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU), are gone, leaving just Kevin Reddick (61.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) and Zach Brown (59.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT). Butch Davis has recruited particularly well in the front seven, so there are interesting options, including four-star signee Travis Hughes, but inexperience could be an issue.
  • Despite the "character issues" associated with their suspensions, Robert Quinn was drafted 14th overall in April's NFL Draft, Marvin Austin 52nd. Throw in linebacker Bruce Carter (second round), cornerback Da'Norris Searcy (fourth) and linebacker Quan Sturdivant (sixth), and it's easy to see why this defense ranked 10th in Def. F/+ in 2009 and was expected to completely dominate last fall. Alas.

North Carolina's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because I couldn't help it...

"Agent Orange," by Pharoahe Monch
"Agent's Office," by Diana Ross
"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," by The Beatles
"Death Is My Sleazy Pay," by My Morning Jacket
"Pay for What You Get," by Dave Matthews Band
"Pay Me My Money Down," by Pete Seeger
"Pay The Price," by Buffalo Springfield
"Pay Them Back," by Brother Ali
"Secret Agent Man," by Johnny Rivers
"Skills to Pay the Bills," by The Beastie Boys

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 38
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 19
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +1 / +10.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.8

The good news for North Carolina fans (and the bad news for fans growing increasingly concerned about the impact of agents, under-the-table money, etc.) is that, at first glance, the NCAA's Notice of Allegations could have been much worse. Considering what appears to be a growing number of scandals, the NCAA could have chosen to make even more of an example out of North Carolina, a non-traditional power, than they did USC, but with no "Lack of Institutional Control" charges, that might (might) not be the case. Still, they're almost certainly looking at scholarship restrictions, postseason bans, et cetera.

There is an NCAA hearing in October, so the chances are this cloud will continue to follow the program around all season; and honestly, they deserve it. But it further blurs the projectability (that is now a word, by the way) of this squad. In a vacuum, without hearings and allegations and a potential new coaching search (you never know) getting in the way, this is a team with solid potential. The offense might be more hit-and-miss, but the hits could be lovely; meanwhile, the defense is deep and athletic and could benefit from the experience players generated in light of suspensions last year.

With seven home games and trips to East Carolina and N.C. State, the Tar Heels play nine games within the borders of their home state; and considering their toughest home games are against Louisville and Miami, they could very well rack up the wins this season in the aforementioned vacuum. But in reality, the distractions will be epic. The Heels handled them well last year, which was amazing considering the shuffling of personnel, but the cloud only gets darker this fall, and if the NCAA moves quickly enough, last year's Music City Bowl might be the last time North Carolina tastes the postseason for a while.

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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