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It’s a reset year for UNC football. How far will Larry Fedora’s Heels fall?

Now that North Carolina’s production finally makes sense, let’s find out what the program’s made of.

North Carolina v Miami Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chapel Hill is a lovely place, and it houses a lovely campus. UNC has an enrollment in the neighborhood of 30,000. It’s spacious but not too spaced out, it’s got plenty of trees and pretty, old buildings, and the athletics facilities are mostly baked into the cake.

The old basketball arena is on the main artery road on campus (the Dean Dome is separated but isn’t too far away), and the football stadium is in the middle of things. Downtown is nearby, and it’s got drinking (cheap and fancy) and eating (ditto) options. From the dorms, you can access virtually all of this by foot.

This is a semi-idyllic, normal college town, and for a couple of years now, it has had a normal football team for once.

Over Fedora’s five seasons, he has averaged a recruiting class ranking of 29.8 (per the 247Sports Composite), produced three S&P+ top-30 performances, and averaged eight wins per year. You could note that the other two teams were pretty far outside of the top 30, or that he should be doing a hair better in recruiting, but recruiting and performance are finally in line with each other.

For most of the 2000s, that hadn’t been the case. The Tar Heels were the poster boys for what could be. In John Bunting’s first season, they beat No. 6 Florida State and No. 13 Clemson by a combined 79-12. They also lost to Wake Forest and Maryland and finished 8-5. They beat No. 4 Miami in 2004 but finished 6-6. They beat ranked Virginia and BC teams in 2005 but finished 5-6.

When Butch Davis took over, he demonstrated the program’s ceiling by signing a top-10 class in 2007 and top-20 classes in 2009 and 2011. He went 8-5 for three straight years, and he was dismissed in the summer of 2011 as part of UNC’s ongoing effort to fight academic misconduct and improper benefits allegations.

Big recruits, big wins, and no top-15 finishes from 1998 to 2014. That was UNC’s reality. And now it’s something far more ... reality-based.

Fedora’s classes are almost identical from year to year, and from an S&P+ standpoint (presented in the format of adjusted points per game) his three good teams (2013, 2015, and 2016) have been within 0.4 points of each other: plus-11.1, plus-10.7, and plus-11.1. This is almost too normal.

How does Fedora raise the bar now? I’m not sure, but I know he probably won’t do so in 2017. Like 2014, when UNC slipped to 6-7 and 71st in S&P+ before surging, Fedora’s Heels have a lot to replace, particularly on offense: a top-10 draft choice at QB, two running backs who combined for 1,500 yards, five of the top six receiving targets, and two all-conference offensive linemen. A scary-in-a-good-way special teams unit is also rebuilding. The defense is experienced but lost its coordinator.

UNC is projected to fall from 21st to 38th in S&P+. The Heels’ schedule is kind, for an ACC slate — no Clemson or Florida State, and Louisville, Miami, and Notre Dame at home — and eight of 12 games are projected to finish within one possession, which means a few exciting new pieces could make the difference between a four- or nine-win season. The former might lead us to wonder about Fedora’s staying power; the latter might make UNC the 2018 ACC Coastal favorite.


2016 in review

2016 UNC statistical profile.

I got yelled at by UNC fans during the Heels’ 11-win 2015. UNC ranked a mere 28th in S&P+. It was easy to explain why — they lost to both of the S&P+ top-25 teams they faced (Clemson and Baylor), barely got by teams ranked 40th and 68th, and lost to a South Carolina that ended up in the 80s.

When you’re winning, it feels like you should rank high no matter what, but things normalized in 2016. The Heels exceeded expectations from an S&P+ standpoint (they were projected 27th and finished 21st) but finished with a win total (eight) right where it was projected to be. The schedule went from featuring two top-30 teams to six; that’ll cost you a few wins.

That’s not to say the season went according to plan. (UNC hasn’t totally kicked the UNC habit, I guess.) The Heels went 3-3 against those top-30 teams, beating No. 6 Florida State and No. 14 Miami on the road and knocking off No. 20 Pitt at home. If you’re capable of that, you probably shouldn’t also lose to a mediocre Georgia and both chief rivals (28-27 to Duke, 28-21 to NC State). The record was less a product of the schedule and more a product of when they showed up.

  • UNC in eight wins: Avg. percentile performance: 83% (~top 20) | Avg. score: UNC 40, Opp 22 | Avg. yards per play: UNC 7.5, Opp 5.5 (plus-2.0)
  • UNC in five losses: Avg. percentile performance: 47% (~top 70) | Avg. score: Opp 30, UNC 20 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.2, UNC 5.2 (plus-0.0)

The defense was roughly the same, but the offense fluctuated. The Heels laid an egg in a rainstorm against Virginia Tech, but even in the other games, there was a clear difference between Good UNC and Bad UNC.

Maybe it’s a good sign that the defense was more stable, as the defense will far more closely resemble last year’s unit than the offense will.


Offense

UNC offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Mitch Trubisky was only the starting quarterback for one year at UNC, but he made the most of it. He completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for nearly 3,800 yards with 30 touchdowns to only six interceptions; after completing 66 percent of his passes through two seasons as a backup, he proved small sample sizes can tell a semi-accurate story. That was enough to get him (over-)drafted second in the 2017 NFL draft.

If he didn’t produce, however, UNC wasn’t going to win. He threw interceptions in three games (two in each), and the Heels lost all three. When he produced a passer rating under 150, UNC went 1-4. The run game was decent but unspectacular (and it was horrendous in short-yardage situations), and the defense was decent but inefficient, and Trubisky had to be awesome for the Heels to survive.

Trubisky’s gone, and so are running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, and Mack Hollins, and starting linemen Jon Heck, Lucas Crowley, Caleb Peterson. Yikes.

This isn’t going to scare coordinator Gunter Brewer too much; he’s seen things. His career got rolling when he coached Randy Moss as Marshall’s receivers coach, and he ended up holding the same roles at UNC and Oklahoma State (under Fedora). When Fedora left to take the Southern Miss head coaching gig, Brewer ended up as OSU co-coordinator, then as passing game coordinator for a year at Ole Miss. Once you’ve worked for a desperate Houston Nutt, not much is going to phase you.

LSU v Mississippi
Brandon Harris
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

With so much gone, let’s take stock:

  • LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris was the Tigers’ QB for most of 2015, and he threw for 2,158 yards and 13 touchdowns while sharing a backfield with Leonard Fournette. He was inefficient but explosive, completing 54 percent but at 14.6 yards per completion. He struggled in a season-opening loss to Wisconsin last year, then got yanked after going 1-for-4 for eight yards against Jacksonville State.
  • If Harris doesn’t seize control, the job will go to sophomore Nathan Elliott (8-for-9 for 55 yards as Trubisky’s backup) or one of two redshirt freshmen — Chazz Surratt or Logan Byrd. Surratt was the most well-regarded as a recruit, and Elliott wasn’t awful in scrub time last fall.
  • Senior Austin Proehl is the de facto go-to in the receiving corps. Of the six players targeted at least 20 times, he’s the only returnee. He had 597 receiving yards at 8 yards per target, and his 49 percent success rate second-best of that six-man bunch. He peaked with seven catches for 99 yards in the win over Pitt and seven for 91 in the bowl loss to Stanford. The only other wideouts with more than three catches last year: former walk-on and potential possession extraordinaire Thomas Jackson (18 targets, 17 catches, 78 percent success rate last year) and Jordan Cunningham (10 targets, six catches, 82 yards).
  • Tackle Bentley Spain and guard R.J. Prince have combined for 35 career starts, and sophomore guard Tommy Hatton added an extra eight last season. They are joined by Florida graduate transfer Cameron Dillard and USC graduate transfer Khaliel Rodgers, plus a smattering of former star recruits — sophomore William Sweet, redshirt freshman Jay-Jay McCargo, freshman Jonah Melton, etc. In theory, there’s a nice starting five.
  • Oh right, running backs. Hmm. Auburn grad transfer Stanton Truitt rushed 31 times for the Tigers last year as a part-time RB/WR. Sophomore Jordon Brown gained just 45 yards in 20 carries last year. True freshmen Michael Carter and Antwuan Branch are options. Aaaaaand I’m not sure what else.

The run game will probably regress, which will put Trubisky-level pressure on the new passing corps. That doesn’t usually translate to success.

Defense

UNC defensive radar

Former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was really good at a couple of specific things. His Tar Heel defenses prevented big plays, waited for you to make a mistake, and then pounced, usually on passing downs. They were bend-don’t-break to the core, ranking 97th in success rate and 19th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays).

UNC defensive efficiency and explosiveness

It’s hard to create an elite defense with those principles, but when you’re trying to restore credibility, it’s a good place to start. Before you can win (make stops), you have to figure out how not to lose (suffer big breakdowns), right?

UNC improved from 110th in Def. S&P+ pre-Chizik to 72nd in 2015 and 44th in 2016. But the 55-year old stepped aside to spend more time with his family, leaving John Papuchis to figure out how to keep pushing the defense forward.

The 39-year-old is a Bo Pelini disciple who spent 2008-10 as Nebraska’s defensive ends coach and 2012-14 as NU defensive coordinator. His last Husker defense ranked basically the same as UNC’s last year, but the Huskers ranked a more balanced 43rd in success rate and 56th in IsoPPP. They gave up more big plays but created far more turnover chances. And they did that with an ultra young front.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina
Malik Carney
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Chizik had to deal with something similar last year. Among the 14 combined linemen and linebackers who recorded at least 8.5 tackles in 2016, six were sophomores, and three were freshmen. That didn’t do the Heels too many favors — they were 72nd in Rushing S&P+, 95th in rushing success rate, and 120th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) — but assuming a normal developmental curve, that could mean improvement.

End Malik Carney recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year, while tackles Jeremiah Clarke and Aaron Crawford appear to have potential as boulders in the middle. Meanwhile, junior linebackers Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith and senior Cayson Collins combined for 15 TFLs and eight breakups. If younger players like ends Jason Strowbridge and Tomon Fox and linebacker Dominique Ross live up to flashes of potential, the front seven could be fun. And if it isn’t, it probably will be in 2018.

North Carolina v Duke
M.J. Stewart
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The secondary was dealt a tricky hand in having to compensate for such an inexperienced front seven. Opponents far preferred run to pass, rushing 68 percent of the time on standard downs (13th in FBS) and 45 percent on passing downs (second). And the return of safety Donnie Miles and corner M.J. Stewart gives the Heels a couple of anchors in the back once more.

Chizik didn’t employ a large rotation in the back, and the loss of safety Dominquie Green and corner Des Lawrence hurts. Even with Miles and Stewart, UNC will rely on youngsters — some combination of marginally tested juniors (Corey Bell Jr., J.K. Britt), sophomores (Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene, K.J. Sails, D.J. Ford), and freshmen (Myles Wolfolk, Greg Ross, C.J. Cotman, Tre Shaw).

The run defense better improve, but the timing might be right for Papuchis to dial up the aggressiveness.


Special Teams

First, the good news: punter Tom Sheldon is back. The 6’3 sophomore was a first-year hit, averaging 42.7 yards per kick with a good fair catch ratio and a 70 percent punting success rate (14th in FBS). Odds are decent that UNC will be punting more, and Sheldon could give the Heels a field position bump.

Now the bad news. No more Ryan Switzer (seven career punt return touchdowns). No more T.J. Logan (four career kick return touchdowns). No more Nick Weiler (7-for-10 on FGs longer than 40 yards last year).

UNC ranked ninth in Special Teams S&P+ last season, and unless Weiler’s replacement is amazing, there’s almost nowhere to go but down.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep California 55 5.5 63%
9-Sep Louisville 14 -9.0 30%
16-Sep at Old Dominion 93 11.7 75%
23-Sep Duke 65 6.6 65%
30-Sep at Georgia Tech 31 -4.6 40%
7-Oct Notre Dame 17 -5.7 37%
14-Oct Virginia 70 9.4 71%
21-Oct at Virginia Tech 25 -7.0 34%
28-Oct Miami 18 -4.5 40%
9-Nov at Pittsburgh 33 -3.8 41%
18-Nov Western Carolina NR 38.8 99%
25-Nov at N.C. State 27 -5.4 38%
Projected S&P+ Rk 38
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 59 / 32
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.9 (41)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 29 / 24
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 7.4
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 41% (19%, 64%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (-0.5)

UNC is experimenting with a newfound sense of normalcy, and it’s looked good in baby blue. But when you reach this top-30 level, one of two things tends to happen: you either upgrade, or you deal with bumps in the road. Recruiting isn’t changing much, so when experience isn’t distributed quite right, there will be setback years.

UNC will almost certainly regress, with this much offensive turnover, but whether the Heels fall to 35th or 55th or 75th will set the bar. Adding Harris helps to assure a higher floor, but if one of the younger guys beats him out for the starting QB job, that might not be the worst thing, long-term.

From Cal in the opener to NC State to finish the regular season, UNC’s season will be filled with relative tossups and ups and downs. The potential UNC shows will say a lot about Fedora’s ability to keep normalcy in Chapel Hill.

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