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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 20: North Carolina

North Carolina's run to an A.C.C. title starts today. Can the offense help carry the load?

North Carolina flirted with the Top 25 through Butch Davis’s third season in Chapel Hill, though a frustrating level of inconsistency doomed the Tar Heels to a repeat of 2008′s 8-5 record. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially when considering the program’s putrid level of play under John Bunting, Davis’s predecessor. Yet U.N.C. could be frustrating. Take, for example, this four-week period: lose to Virginia, beat Georgia Southern, lose to Florida State, beat then-No. 14 Virginia Tech. That win over the Hokies triggered a four-game win streak against conference opposition, a streak that ended with a loss to rival N.C. State, then 4-7.

Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Chapel Hill, N.C.

Tar Heels

Returning starters
tk (tk offense, tk defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 25

2009 record
(8-5, 4-4)

Last year’s

No. 33

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    L.S.U. (in Atlanta)
  • Sept. 18
    Georgia Tech
  • Sept. 25
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 2
  • Oct. 9
  • Oct. 16
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 23
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 30
    William & Mary
  • Nov. 6
    at Florida St.
  • Nov. 13
    Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 20
    N.C. St.
  • Nov. 27
    at Duke

Last year’s prediction

North Carolina certainly fits into the 22-30 range, based on how large a step forward it took last fall and the number of talented players it returns on this year’s team. Still, I have Carolina finishing third in what is looking like a very deep A.C.C. Coastal division, with the two favorites being Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. In what should be another year of development for this rising program, I predict North Carolina to take another step forward: 9-3, 5-3 in the conference play.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Perhaps a more consistent level of play will come with the growth of a pedestrian offense, one that scored 20 points or less six times on the season. The Tar Heels finished the year 83rd in scoring offense (23.8 points per game) and 108th in total offense, leaving the defense carrying more than its share of the weight. This defense, however, was up to the task: North Carolina finished in the top 13 nationally in rushing, total and scoring defense. The next step for U.N.C.? Putting together a complete package, offense and defense. If Butch Davis can do that in 2010, the Tar Heels may find themselves in the Top 25 to stay.

High point A four-game stretch from Oct. 29 – Nov. 21 saw U.N.C. beat Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke and Boston College. The winning streak pushed the Tar Heels to 8-3 over all and 4-3 in the A.C.C. after an ugly 0-3 start to conference play. North Carolina’s win in Blacksburg over the Hokies was the program’s first since 1930, though it won in Roanoke, Va., in 1945 and in Norfolk, Va., in 1939.

Low point A sloppy start to conference play. A loss at Georgia Tech I can get; a 16-3 home loss a week later to Virginia is tougher to swallow. The Tar Heels gained only 174 yards of total offense, averaged less than two yards per carry and turned the ball over three times to the worst team in the conference this side of Maryland.

Tidbit North Carolina leads the A.C.C. with 13 non-offensive touchdowns over the last two years. Three players have accounted for seven of those scores: three by cornerback Kendric Burney, and a pair each from linebacker Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter. All three starters return in 2010; prepare yourself for a trend.

Tidbit (continuity edition) For the first time since 1999, U.N.C.’s coaching staff returns intact. The 1999 team, led by Carl Torbush, regressed from a seven-win finish to a disappointing 3-8.

Former players in the N.F.L.

28 WR Sam Aiken (New England), DT Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco), K Connor Barth (Tampa Bay), CB Dre’ Bly (Detroit), C Jason Brown (St. Louis), TE Alge Crumpler (New England), WR Brooks Foster (St. Louis), FB Madison Hedgecock (New York Giants), CB Jordan Hemby (Indianapolis), WR Jesse Holley (Dallas), DE Vonnie Holliday (Washington), OT Kyle Jolly (Pittsburgh), WR Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants), RB Willie Parker (Washington), DE Julius Peppers (Chicago), TE Richard Quinn (Denver), K Jeff Reed (Pittsburgh), OT Garrett Reynolds (Atlanta), C Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis), S Gerald Sensabaugh (Dallas), DT Ryan Sims (Tampa Bay), WR Brandon Tate (New England), DE Hilee Taylor (Carolina), DT Cam Thomas (San Diego), LB David Thornton (Tennessee), LS Greg Warren (Pittsburgh), DE E.J. Wilson (Seattle), WR Wallace Wright (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

Important Civil War battles in North Carolina
1. Bentonville.
2. Wyse Fork.
3. Wilmington.
4. Plymouth.
5. Fort Fisher.


Butch Davis (Arkansas ’74), 20-18 after two seasons at North Carolina. Davis led the Heels to a four-win improvement in his second season, and matched that eight-win total in 2009. Davis may have exceeded the expectations surrounding both himself and the program in 2008, but an 8-5 finish in year three indicates that Davis has the Tar Heels in line for consistently strong play for the foreseeable future. Few had any doubts that Davis would win at U.N.C. – as he has had nothing but success on the college level – but Carolina’s  early success was ahead of the curve, as Davis inherited a program badly in need of an overhaul. The Tar Heels won only 19 games from 2002-6, never cracking six wins in any season and struggling through three nine-loss seasons. After taking one year to begin the rebuilding process (4-8 in 2007), Davis has the Heels poised for A.C.C. title contention. Of course, Davis is most well known for his six-year stint as the head coach at Miami (51-20 from 1995-2000), when he led the Hurricanes to five top 20 finishes despite battling tough probation restrictions. Miami went 11-1 in 2000, earning a No. 2 final ranking, before Davis left the program to accept the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns. His record with the Browns was mediocre (24-35 from 2001-4), but he did lead the new franchise to its first playoff appearance (2002). The vast majority of his assistant experience came under Jimmy Johnson, first at Miami (defensive line coach from 1984-88) before moving with Johnson to the N.F.L. Davis coached the Cowboys defensive line from 1989-92 before being promoted to defensive coordinator (1993-94); Dallas went 24-8 over that two-year span, winning the Super Bowl in 1993. His time away from the college game may have cost Davis much of the national acclaim he accumulated while the head coach at Miami, but one would be wise to remember why he was once considered one of the top coaches in college football. It will only take a single breakout season to remind us all once again.

Players to watch

The offense depends on T.J. Yates. By extension, of course, the welfare of this entire team depends on the senior, whose junior season was not far from disappointing. Though his sophomore seasons was marred by injuries, Yates seemed to have turned a corner: in seven games, he threw for 1,168 yards with a sterling 11-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year was a step back: 2,136 yards with 14 touchdowns against 15 picks, statistically a worse performance than his freshman campaign. What’s in store for Yates in 2010? He must improve, must become more consistent, must lead this offense to a finer performance to compliment this superb defense. It’s all on his shoulders, even if the Heels remain run-first, pass-second. It’s now or never for Yates, of course.

The running game features the pairing of seniors Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston, a pair that combined for 1,280 yards and 10 scores a year ago. Draughn started the first nine games of last fall before a shoulder injury suffered against Duke cost him the remainder of his season; prior to his injury, Draughn rushed for 567 yards while adding another 125 yards through the air. He’s been a steady presence on the ground over each of the last two years, adding a team-best 866 yards to last year’s total. Houston made the most of his late-season opportunity, rushing for at least 76 yards in U.N.C.’s final five games. It’s a nice duo, especially between the tackles. Don’t look for either to break a big play, however; the pair combined for four carries of 20 or more yards in 2009.

Lost in the hubbub surrounding his more high-profile teammate’s status is Greg Little’s mounting eligibility issue: Will the senior, key to U.N.C.’s success in the passing game, miss any games in 2010? It’s impossible to know which way the N.C.A.A. is leaning, though it’d be surprising to see Little miss more than a game or two in September. If he’s unable to go, U.N.C. will need one of its young receivers, like Jheranie Boyd, to step up. Boyd, a sophomore, had a nice rookie season: 12 catches for 214 yards, a team-leading 17.8 yards per catch. He began to improve as the year progressed, as most freshmen tend to do; his finest performance came in the regular season finale, when Boyd pulled down a pair of long touchdown grabs against N.C. State.

Another sophomore, Erik Highsmith, was even more impressive. His debut season saw Highsmith finish second on the team in both receptions (37) and receiving yards (425), both totals trailing only Little’s output. Even with this sophomore pair, and underclassmen Dwight Jones — still waiting for him to live up to his potential — Joshua Adams and Todd Harrelson, the Heels sorely need Little at receiver. He’s shined at the position since moving there from running back midway through the 2008 season, embracing the opportunity to make an impact outside of the ground game. If he’s available, Little is an all-conference candidate.

How good is this defense? Easily among the top five units in the country, if not better — Alabama will be better, perhaps Nebraska, Ohio State or Iowa, but that’s it. A remarkable 10 starters return from a defense that ranked in the top 15 nationally last fall in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense; look for at least half of these returning starters on an N.F.L. team near you in 2011. What propels this group forward? Like all great defenses, a wonderful, talented front four.

Now, the big question: How much, if any, will we see from Marvin Austin in 2010? Based on what I’ve heard, he’s the most likely of the several players under N.C.A.A. investigation — including Little — to lose his entire season. If this is true, it’s a big loss. Not a setback U.N.C. can’t overcome, however. The Heels are loaded at end, thanks mainly to the presence of junior Robert Quinn, a reigning first-team all-conference pick. Quinn made 52 tackles (19 for loss) and 11 sacks last fall, helping him finish second in the A.C.C. Defensive Player of the Year voting. Quinn, however, would be hampered by Austin’s absence; no Austin, more double teams, and so on. Just like U.N.C. can overcome Austin’s loss, so can Quinn: he’s dominant at times, and could make a similar leap to the one he made between his freshman and sophomore campaigns.

One way that U.N.C. could replace Austin — again, if he’s unavailable — is by moving junior Quinton Coples inside. It’s not a bad move: Coples has good size and burgeoning pass rushing skills, as he illustrated last fall. If his projected move inside holds, Coples would join Tydreke Powell on the interior of the U.N.C. line; Powell was a leading reserve behind departed starter Cam Thomas a year ago. With Coples changing positions, look for the Heels to push either sophomore Donte Paige-Moss or junior Michael McAdoo into the starting lineup.

How good is the linebacker corps? As good as any trio in the country, particularly at outside linebacker. Seniors Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter flank sophomore middle linebacker Kevin Reddick, with each of the former duo landing all-conference honors in 2009. Sturdivant, thanks to his 79-tackle (12 for loss) season, became the first U.N.C. linebacker to earn first-team all-A.C.C. accolades since 1997. Carter is overshadowed by Sturdivant, but he’s certainly no slouch: 65 tackles (7.5 for loss) and 2 sacks, a second-team all-conference pick. Reddick stepped into the starting lineup midway through his rookie season, eventually making 45 tackles (5.5 for loss).

How good is the secondary? Unquestionably the best in the A.C.C., and among the best in the country. Sound familiar? Seniors Charles Brown and junior Kendric Burney return at cornerback, with Burney coming off a first-team all-conference season. This pair accounted for eight picks a year ago, with Burney’s 200 interception return yards a new program record. Brown’s first season in the starting lineup went well, particularly with teams more likely to challenge the senior with Burney on the other side of the field. Things are equally secure at safety, where — like at cornerback — the Heels return a player coming off a strong debut campaign in the starting lineup and a first-team all-A.C.C. selection. Junior Da’Norris Searcy, who doubles as a premier punt returner, will start at strong safety. Junior free safety Deunta Williams is the best at his spot in the A.C.C.: the 38-game starter had a team-leading six interceptions last fall, the second-best total in the conference.

Even without Austin, this is a national title-worthy defense. From top to bottom — from Quinn, to Sturdivant, to Burney and Williams — it’s as good as it gets. Would the Heels be better with Austin, even if for only half a season? Of course, of course. Will the Heels survive? Again, of course. Now, the offense… that’s another story.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line Perhaps last season’s injuries, which forced several youngsters — youngsters unready for prime time — into key roles will yield dividends. That’s a possibility. If U.N.C. does not improve up front, expect more of the same on offense. Two of the freshmen thrust into starting roles will open 2010 in the starting lineup: Jonathan Cooper will start at center, Travis Bond at right guard. A third sophomore, Brennan Williams, is currently running second at right tackle. He’ll back up senior Mike Ingersoll, one of three returning full-time starters up front. The weak side of the line will be held down by junior Carl Gaskins at tackle and senior Alan Pelc, with the latter bringing 23 career starts into his final season. If last year’s experience doesn’t provide a boost to the starting group, it will improve depth: along with Williams, the Tar Heels have tested hands at left guard in senior Greg Elleby and at center in Cam Holland, a junior. Holland made seven games at center last fall, but, as noted, he’s been supplanted in the starting lineup by Cooper. So depth is improved. Will that spell an improved performance from the line altogether? It certainly won’t hurt, of course.

Game(s) to watch

The kickoff game at the Georgia Dome has not been kind to the A.C.C. over the past two years, but North Carolina hopes to break the curse with a big season-opening win over L.S.U. After a one-week break, U.N.C. hosts Georgia Tech. That game, along with games against Miami and Virginia Tech, will determine North Carolina’s final standing in the Coastal division.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s a reason U.N.C. is a trendy pick: 19 returning starters; unbelievable talent on the defensive side of the ball; and a proven, experienced coach capable of taking the Tar Heels to the top of the conference. Then there’s the reason the Tar Heels won’t take the A.C.C.: the offense. It’s a serious concern, one that would very well utterly derail a team that lacked such a superb defense. So that’s the bad news: I can picture the remaining three Coastal leaders — Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Georgia Tech — winning the division before I see the Heels taking such a step. However, let’s not discount the potential of a defense capable of leading this team to victory every Saturday. This is the same defense, of course, that led the Heels to an 18-point road win over Boston College, one that saw the offense mount only 278 yards of total offense; to another road win, this one over Connecticut, when the offense accounted for 35 yards rushing; and held a powerful Virginia Tech ground game to less than 100 yards rushing in a third road win. The defense can do this again — and more, in my opinion — but it would be nice if the offense could help carry the load. Now, I do think the offense will be improved; hence U.N.C. placement in the top 20, not outside the Top 25. Yates could only be better; the offensive line is deeper; and the running back tandem, if healthy, should allow U.N.C. to improve upon last fall’s paltry rushing output. This is very good team — albeit an unbalanced one — with the healthy potential for a nine-win finish. Like Nebraska a year ago, the defense is good enough to carry the load — to a point.

Dream season Year four of the Butch Davis era yields a 10-2 finish, with wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech leading to a Coastal division championship and a Top 10 ranking.

Nightmare season The Tar Heels continue to lose their way offensively. The lack of firepower contributes greatly to a 6-6 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do North Carolina fans congregate? Yet another F.B.S. program where you’ve got to be careful: basketball chatter lurks around every corner. For recruiting coverage, visit Carolina Blue and Inside Carolina. For a blog’s take, check out Tar Heel Fan and Carolina March.

Up Next

Who is No. 19? Our next team, No. 19 on this list, came in at No. 64 on another preseason list, this one featured in a prominent daily newspaper.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. batecher says:

    The Orlando Sentinel ranked Georgia No. 64 (as discussed in PSR’s June 29th Op-Ed!).

  2. Alex Payne says:

    The Georgia Bulldogs!

  3. Nate says:

    Hey Paul, could you give me your pick on the UNC @ Miami game real quick? Is this the year randy (the student) finally surpasses butch (the master)? To me, thats the game that makes or breaks the canes season.

  4. timmy says:

    bet on this offense getting better at your own risk. it will be terrible yet again, and with the investigation looming, UNC comes crashing down to earth. much more likely for the worst case scenario. UNC had a nice little run last season as you mentioned, but it’s not happening again

  5. Ezra says:

    tsk tsk– how do you leave TCU’s defense out of your top five?

  6. Patrick says:

    TCU lost Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington, two players taken in the top 50 of the NFL Draft. TCU should still be very good defensively, but that kind of production lost probably puts them in the top 10 defensively, rather than top 5.

  7. Dontel says:

    Jim Narby is next with “Nebraska is next”

  8. Havik says:

    I agree with timmy, everything he said was exactly what I was thinking. And im a UNC fan, not to mention extremely pessimistic.

  9. [...] Five and Five: No. 20, North Carolina By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 20, is North Carolina. You can find a larger North Carolina preview here. [...]

  10. Ezra says:

    ah, Patrick: you underestimate TCU. I can’t blame you: everybody does. But remember, TCU’s defense replaced 7 starters from the nation’s #1 defense in 2009, and again finished #1.

    Truth is, while no single lineman may replace all of Jerry Hughes’s production in ’10, or one linebacker all of Daryl Washington’s, there is ample reason to believe the unit will not lose its punch as a whole in ’10. The new starting corners are probably an upgrade, and are experienced. The new linebacker is experienced, and freakishly talented. The new end, be it Broughton, Maponga, or Forrest, will be a very exciting player to watch.

    I look for TCU to finish in the top 5 again.

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