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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. 36: North Carolina

One minute, the college football world was fixated on Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who told the masses that the conference would be unleashing a national network — coming soon to a TV near you. Then, at around 5:15 p.m., a shot came across the bow: North Carolina would neither “confirm nor deny” that Butch Davis’s job was in jeopardy. Cue the hand-wringing, the angry outbursts from a fan base loving life in the national picture. Thirty minutes later, he was gone. “To restore confidence in the University of North Carolina and our football program, it’s time to make a change,” said U.N.C. chancellor Holden Thorp. Don’t quibble with the move, which was a long time coming; quibble with the timing, as there’s a week until fall camp, give or take, and U.N.C. returns to square one without the architect of three consecutive eight-win seasons. And while confidence has been restored to the university, confidence in the football program has left the building. It may be time to welcome back an old friend: four-win North Carolina.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Location
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Nickname
Tar Heels

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 20

2010 record
(8-5, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 32

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    James Madison
  • Sept. 10
    Rutgers
  • Sept. 17
    Virginia
  • Sept. 24
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 1
    at E.C.U.
  • Oct. 8
    Louisville
  • Oct. 15
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 22
    at Clemson
  • Oct. 29
    Wake Forest
  • Nov. 5
    at N.C. State
  • Nov. 17
    at Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 26
    Duke

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell At times, it seemed like U.N.C. was playing with an N.F.L.-sized roster: 53 guys, not the 100-plus afforded to every program on the F.B.S. level. It seemed that way thanks to the rampant accusations of player misconduct which surfaced in August and September, findings that eventually cost assistant head coach John Blake his job and cast a shadow over U.N.C.’s season. The word of the day remains adversity: lesser teams might have faltered, a less-tested coach might have lost his nerve, but the Tar Heels and Butch Davis gathered together as a team to win eight games for the third consecutive season. Is that what we’ll take from 2010? Nope. What we’ll remember is how the U.N.C. administration took 12 months to find the wherewithal to dismiss Davis, nearly a full year from the date when the allegations of program misconduct first broke. Nicely done.

High point A 37-35 win at Florida State on Nov. 6. It was almost hard to believe: U.N.C. was coming off an ugly loss to Miami (Fla.) and an equally ugly win over William & Mary.

Low point Successive losses to Virginia Tech and N.C. State extinguished any A.C.C. title hopes. The Tar Heels rebounded to get past Duke to end the regular season, but the damage had been done.

Tidbit North Carolina has won at least eight games in a season for three consecutive years five times in program history, each time under a different coach. The first was Carl Snavely, who did so from 1946-48. Bill Dooley did the same from 1970-72, followed by Dick Crum, who had five straight seasons with at least eight wins from 1979-83. Mack Brown did so from 1992-94. Butch Davis won eight games in each of the last three years.

Tidbit (interceptions edition) The Tar Heels are one of three teams in the F.B.S. to finish among the top 12 nationally in interceptions in each of the last three years, joining Florida and Iowa. U.N.C. has intercepted 58 passes over this span: 20 last fall and 19 in both 2009 and 2008. Florida leads the way nationally with 68 picks since 2008: 22 coming in 2010, 20 in 2009 and an F.B.S.-best 26 in 2008. Iowa is next with 63: 19, 21 and 23, respectively.

Tidbit (down years edition) Carolina went 43-63 from 1998, the year after Mack Brown, through 2006, the year before Butch Davis. Those were dark days for the program, you could say. The Tar Heels lost 24 games by 20 points or more over these nine seasons, under Carl Torbush and John Bunting, and only twice won more than six games in a season. Those days are coming back.

Former players in the N.F.L.

30 DT Marvin Austin (New York Giants) DE Kentwan Balmer (Seattle), C Jason Brown (St. Louis), LB Bruce Carter (Dallas), TE Alge Crumpler (New England), RB Shaun Draughn (Washington), WR Brooks Foster (Miami), FB Madison Hedgecock (New York Giants), CB Jordan Hemby (Indianapolis), WR Jesse Holley (Dallas), DE Vonnie Holliday (Washington), OT Mike Ingersoll (Kansas City), OT Kyle Jolly (Pittsburgh), WR Greg Little (Cleveland), WR Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants), DE Julius Peppers (Chicago), TE Richard Quinn (Denver), DE Robert Quinn (St. Louis), OT Garrett Reynolds (Atlanta), C Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis), CB Da’Norris Searcy (Buffalo), LB Quan Sturidvant (Arizona), WR Brandon Tate (New England), DE Hilee Taylor (Carolina), TE Ryan Taylor (Green Bay), DT Cam Thomas (San Diego), RB Johnny White (Buffalo), DE E.J. Wilson (Tampa Bay), WR Wallace Wright (Carolina), QB T.J. Yates (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Unemployed coaches U.N.C. should realistically consider
1. Rich Rodriguez.
2. Mike Leach.
3. Tommy Bowden.
4. Randy Shannon.
5. Dave Wannstedt.

Coaching

Everett Withers (Appalachian State ’85), for now. Withers was named Carolina’s interim coach ahead of internal options like offensive coordinator John Shoop and offensive line coach Sam Pittman. It wasn’t all that surprising, considering Shoop never seemed like a great pick, though Pittman was named Davis’s associate head coach late last week. U.N.C. went with Withers, picking an assistant without any head coach experience but one who has done a very good job with the U.N.C. defense. Withers was hired by Davis in 2008 after one season at Minnesota, which came on the heels of seven seasons in the N.F.L. with the Tennessee Titans. Withers has done a fine job with a tremendously talented defense over the last three years; one could say that U.N.C. should be have been better, more dominant defensively, but the Tar Heels weren’t losing games on that side of the ball. In my mind, Withers did his best work last fall despite the slight dip in production: U.N.C. allowed 23.2 points per game, but Withers had to mix-and-match new starters, unproven veterans and fresh-faced rookies to keep U.N.C. hanging around the opposition. In addition to Minnesota, Withers has spent time on the college ranks with Texas (1998-2000), Louisville (1995-97), Southern Mississippi (1992-93) and Tulane (1991). Louisville gave Withers his first shot at leading his own defense, but the results weren’t pretty: after allowing only 165 points in 1995, Withers’ defense allowed a then-program record 407 points en route to a 1-10 finish in 1997. So that’s Withers, in a nutshell. Fine defensive coach, solid experience, nothing all that noteworthy but nothing wrong, either. He’ll be in charge for a year. Good luck.

Players to watch

The offensive line continues to improve, which bodes well for Carolina’s new-look backfield. Three starters return from last season, a returning core paced by senior left guard Jonathan Cooper, a second-team all-A.C.C. pick a year ago. The Tar Heels will remain locked into place from left tackle to center, where Cooper is joined by James Hurst and Cam Holland, another pair of all-conference contenders, on the weak side and at center, respectively. Cooper’s 22 career starts lead all returning linemen, just ahead of Holland’s 20. And U.N.C. won’t have to look far to find a replacement for right guard Alan Pelc: junior Travis Bond, a four-game starter there last fall, is full of promise. That leaves right tackle, but Brennan Williams seems to have a solid grasp on the starting spot. Williams was one of the first linemen off the bench in 2010. The line has come a long way since 2009.

You won’t recognize many of the new faces in the backfield. Well, minus one: senior Ryan Houston is back in action after taking a redshirt last fall; he was one of the handful of players suspended for the first six games of 2010, but Houston opted to sit out the entire year rather than play a diminished slate. Another reason why Houston may have been happy to take a year away is that three contributors — a trio that accounted for 96 percent of Carolina’s work on the ground — are no longer in the fold, paving the way for Houston to serve as the U.N.C. lead back. Houston can be one of college football’s best big backs, as he showed in a solid 2009 season (713 yards, 9 scores).

What Houston is not is a burner, and that’s something U.N.C. is lacking altogether at running back. The backup options seem to fit into the same mold as Houston; junior Hunter Furr is a between-the-tackles guy, as is promising redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard, from most accounts. Bernard, who tore his A.C.L. late last summer, is the future at the position. It may take him a year to regain the form that made him a nationally-coveted recruit, however. One thing I do like about this running game, however, is that the backs’ running style should play well with this big, tough offensive front. Perhaps U.N.C. can adopt and embrace a gritty, no-flash ground attack.

That would be great for new quarterback Bryn Renner, who takes over for four-year starter T.J. Yates. Talk about a quarterback who only began to get his due as his career was ending: Yates was maligned for much of his first three seasons — even to the point where some touted Renner as his replacement heading into last fall — but put together a terrific senior year, one that may have earned him A.C.C. Offensive Player of the Year honors prior to Carolina’s late slide. While Renner is well-regarded prospect, he does have some big shoes to fill.

What can you see about Renner? He was a top recruit for this program, one who turned down offers from more established programs for an opportunity to play for U.N.C. and Butch Davis — he wasn’t the only national prospect do so, as we’ve seen. He’s been inked in as Yates’ successor since his arrival, and as noted, was definitely a candidate to replace Yates heading into last season. Like Yates, Renner is a pocket presence; again, it’s a good thing the line is ready to roll. Lastly, I think sitting behind and watching Yates a year ago was the best thing that could have happened to Renner. In all, there’s a reason U.N.C. is very excited about the era which is about to begin under center. Renner will be learning the ropes on the fly, but getting three games at home to open the year will help his development.

Senior Dwight Jones stepped up in a big way last fall, fulfilling his immense promise with a team-best 62 receptions for 946 yards and 4 touchdowns. This after Jones, a former five-star recruit, made a minimal impact in 2009. It stands to reason, therefore, that if he continues his development Jones should be considered an all-American candidate in 2011. He’ll be Renner’s best friend in the passing game, that’s for sure. He’s the top piece of a receiver corps that remains intact, joining juniors Erik Highsmith (25 catches for 348 yards) and Jheranie Boyd (14 for 310). Six of Boyd’s 14 receptions, not to mention 221 of his receiving yards, came against L.S.U. to open the year. Consistency, please. The Tar Heels also hope to get back sophomore Josh Adams (19 for 202), who has been sidelined with kidney issues since earlier this year. Keep an eye on two redshirt freshmen, Reggie Wilkins and Sean Tapely, who impressed during the spring.

The defensive line may not be the best in the nation, but it’s certainly in the conversation. It’s around the top five, at the very least, thanks to an all-American talent like senior end Quinton Coples, two other senior starters and a nice compliment of younger linemen rounding out the rotation. Just Coples alone would do the trick: he surprised many by not parlaying his breakout 2010 campaign — 59 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 10 sacks — into N.F.L. money, opting to return to Chapel Hill for one more season. Would Coples have made the same decision if he knew U.N.C. was going to jettison Davis in late July? I doubt it. But he’s locked in, transitioning outside to end after spending most of his time at tackle last fall, and should challenge for every national award possible for a lineman before cashing in next April.

Coples and junior Donte Paige-Moss might be the best end pairing in the country. You could make the case fairly easily: Coples is a star, and Paige-Moss broke through when given the opportunity last fall, posting 49 tackles (13.5 for loss) and 7.5 sacks as a late replacement for Robert Quinn. Paige-Moss’s ability was never in doubt, so it was nice to see him play up to expectations as a first-year starter. This pair is joined inside by senior Tydreke Powell (47 tackles, 2.5), who doesn’t put up the same lofty totals but is of equal importance to the U.N.C. defense. The fight to start alongside Powell features senior Jordan Nix (18 tackles) and JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams. Sophomore Jared McAdoo’s versatility — his ability to line up inside and out — makes him a very useful reserve. This line is fantastic.

You worry about life without Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter. Still, don’t forget that U.N.C. returns its two leading tacklers from last fall, both linebackers, in Kevin Reddick (74 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Zach Brown (72 tackles, 3 picks). Reddick will start in the middle, as he did for all 13 games last fall; he and Powell were the only defenders to start every game for the Tar Heels in 2010. Brown takes over on a full-time basis on the weak side, where he started five games in Sturdivant’s stead last fall. There’s a position battle on process on the strong side: senior Herman Davidson and sophomore Darius Lipford are the co-leaders, as I don’t think converted safety Curtis Campbell has the size to do what it takes against the run on first and second down.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary The suspensions that rocked last year’s team were felt in the secondary, if not along the starting lineup than in terms of depth at cornerback and safety. Here’s some good news: not only did several untested defensive backs earn considerable playing time last fall as a result, but U.N.C. also returns two key players off year-long suspensions. Both should start as the Tar Heels looks to replace three starters. One is senior cornerback Charles Brown, a starter in 2009. All Brown needs to do is shake off the rust; once he gets back into game shape, Brown should be an all-conference pick. The second returning would-be starter is senior strong safety Jonathan Smith, though one wonders if the year away will do him more harm than good; unlike Brown, Smith has played primarily on special teams thus far in his career. Then there are last year’s freshmen, Tre Boston and Jabari Price. This is your starting secondary: Brown and Price at cornerback, Smith at strong safety and Boston at free safety. Boston makes the move to safety after spending time at cornerback last fall, starting four games while U.N.C. searched for a starter to place opposite Kendric Burney. You don’t doubt this quartet’s talent or ability, but this thought does enter your mind: four starters, two who didn’t play a down last fall, two sophomores. There’s some nice depth in the secondary, but that’s just one note to consider. But the secondary will get better each week, as Brown and Smith reclaim their prior form and the sophomores grow more comfortable as full-time starters.

Game(s) to watch

James Madison, if only to see if Holden Thorp shows up in sight of the masses. Divisional games against Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.) and Georgia Tech are noteworthy, though the Tar Heels weren’t going to unseat the Hokies from atop the Coastal even if Davis had remained gainfully employed. People will be watching the Tar Heels all season to see if a team with Top 25 talent can keep it together.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell U.N.C. couldn’t drop on this list soon enough once Davis was dismissed. All the talent in the world won’t be enough for this team to keep it together… right? Say one thing about these Tar Heels: they’ve tasted adversity, having entered last fall under a cloud of N.C.A.A. sanctions and without several key starters, and should be commended for how they battled back to post another eight-win finish. It was impressive. But the turmoil facing last year’s team pales in comparison to mess on Carolina’s plate heading into 2011: without Davis, I can’t see U.N.C. coming close to reaching its full potential. Where was U.N.C. slated to land prior to Wednesday’s news? I was thinking right on the verge of the Top 25, if not in the 21-25 range, thanks to nice talent offensively and a front four more than capable of lifting the defense into the upper echelon of the country. None of that has changed, to be fair. Renner has all the tools to succeed; Houston has some rust, but he’s a big, physical, pounding back with a track record of productivity; the offensive line has the size to impose their will in the running game; and there’s talent and experience at wide receiver. The defense has the talent to dominate the line of scrimmage, which will do wonders for a secondary under a microscope. So if Davis had returned, you can see why some were touting U.N.C. as the team most likely to win the A.C.C. if Florida State and Virginia Tech faltered. Forget about that. It’s not going to happen anymore, not when this ship has lost its man at the helm. The Tar Heels will be fine, but they’re not going to have the season most expected. What about 2012? 2013? 2014 and beyond? Unless U.N.C. avoids massive N.C.A.A. penalties and can go out and get a Rich Rodriguez, this program is going away for a long time. It was fun while it lasted.

Dream season Despite all the off-field drama, U.N.C. keeps it together. Virginia Tech takes the Coastal division, but the Tar Heels finish a close second at 10-2, 7-1 in conference play.

Nightmare season The bottom drops out: 3-9, 2-6 in the A.C.C.

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.

Word Count

Through 85 teams 257,302.

Up Next

Who is No. 35? The largest employer in the city housing tomorrow’s university is the school itself; the second-largest employer is a healthcare delivery system that was founded in the same year as Sherlock Holmes’ debut appearance.

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

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Comments

  1. htp2012 says:

    Pitt is it at #35

  2. philip says:

    way to turn on a dime. well done, sir.

  3. bfahey says:

    Color me impressed with your apparent re-appraisal of UNC. Would you ever consider publishing a post-countdown/pre-season re-ranking to account for changes occurring during the summer and……oh forget it. That idea became dumber as I typed.

  4. Sasser says:

    I’ve sort of been wondering how much you’re willing to re-shape the Countdown based on news and changes that go on over the course of the preseason, particularly when it came to OSU’s firing/retirement of Tressel. A very nice job kicking UNC to the forefront of the remaining Countdown based on Davis’ firing.

    Just out of curiosity, Paul — If you had the opportunity to shuffle the rankings that you’ve already posted articles for, where exactly would you put UNC at this moment?

  5. Ezra says:

    “Just out of curiosity, Paul — If you had the opportunity to shuffle the rankings that you’ve already posted articles for, where exactly would you put UNC at this moment?”

    yes, this.

  6. mvpittfan says:

    I think Missouri is number 35.
    (Univ of Pittsburgh is 4th largest employer in Pittsburgh)

  7. GreenLantern411 says:

    I believe that Northwestern is next. As I recall, Paul said that was the clue for NU on an interview on Laketheposts.com, then said he would have to change the clue. I guess he didn’t…no worries Paul, seems about right for the ‘Cats, they’ll be better if Persa is 100% and worse if he’s not, so split the difference

  8. Eddie says:

    I think its Northwestern, but I believe Paul messed up a little regarding our friend Holmes.

    Evanston’s two largest employers are NU (5,325) and the Northshore University Health System (3,780).

    The health system was founded in 1891, and the first Sherlock Holmes series short was published in strand magazine in 1891, which was extremely popular for decades.

    …however, Holmes first appeared in 1887, in Beeton’s Christmas annual, than again in the same year in Lippencotts Monthly magazine.

    So either poor research was done (C’mon, you can’t get that passed a Northwestern fan), or the ‘Cats live to survive another day.

  9. vaudvillain says:

    Eddie — you can’t get that *past* a Northwestern fan. (I don’t usually comment on grammar, but if you’re gonna call a guy out for poor research…)

  10. Michael says:

    I argue again that the mid majors are generally ranked far too low here. The big east is a poor football league and even without Boise state the WAC champion is likely to finish higher than the big east champ. I think you’re overrating the big east specifically and major conferences generally at the expense of non-AQs

    Paul: There were 13 non-B.C.S. schools in the end-of-year ranking top 44 last year: Navy, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Hawaii, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Air Force, Utah, Tulsa, U.C.F., Nevada, Boise State and T.C.U. There are nine non-B.C.S. schools in the top 44 heading into 2011: San Diego State, Tulsa, U.C.F., Houston, B.Y.U., Notre Dame, Air Force, Boise State and T.C.U. So yes, there are fewer such schools among the upper echelon heading into this season, in my mind. There things come and go in cycles, and yes, conference strength does need to be considered. That’s why Hawaii and Nevada, should they go 9-3, for example, won’t be considered of equal value of a 9-3 team in the Mountain West or the Big East. Overall, it’s a down year for non-B.C.S. teams. That’s just my opinion.

  11. Clayton says:

    Can’t wait until the MWC loses TCU and the conference will just turn into the WAC part 2. Nevada, Hawaii, Fresno State, and Boise will battle it out for the Mountain West championship every year, boy that sounds familiar.

    The Big East really isn’t as bad as people make them out to be. There aren’t any New Mexicos, Wyomings, UNLVs, or Colorado States in the Big East, sorry. I also find it hilarious Michael thinks the WAC champ will be ranked higher than the Big East champion with wins over the likes of SJSU, NMSU, Idaho, Utah State, and Louisiana Tech. Sorry, Michael, your argument is wrong. The Big East is a lot more talented and Skilled than the WAC

  12. Chadnudj says:

    Perhaps we’re wrong….Air Force hasn’t been selected yet, and the hospital in Colorado Springs was founded in 1887 (same year as Sherlock’s debut). The employment part is questionable (you’d have to overlook other military bases in the area, or count them in as being “university” employees in the sense the university is a service academy, and thus they’re all “owned” by the government), but otherwise it fits.

    While the prior appearance in LTP says Northwestern, I’ll go with….Air Force as #35.

  13. UVA Cat says:

    @chad

    I, too, thought about the fact that USAFA hasn’t been listed yet, but the Academy is the 3rd largest employer in the Springs and Penrose-St. Francis Health Services (which traces back to the first hospital in the city in 1887) is the 7th largest employer there.

    I think it’s probably NU at #35, which would assume a minor error in the clue above. Maybe we’ll be surprised, though. However, if NU is ranked too much higher, I get a little worried as an NU fan…

  14. UVA Cat says:

    My previous post containing relative rankings of employment stats in C-Springs was, of course, sourced from Wikipedia, while we’re on the subject of research:-)

  15. Chadnudj says:

    @UVA Cat — mine too. Based the whole post regarding Air Force as the next team on Wikipedia research. Still, a reasonable guess….and if Paul was trying to throw us Cats’ fans off, wouldn’t it be smart to use a clue he already had offered about Northwestern (that actually fit Air Force) rather than come up with a more readily-identifiable Northwestern clue?

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