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The Countdown

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

Need to Know

Offense Tries to Catch Up

It will all come down to the offense, and by extension, senior T.J. Yates.

It’s beyond frustrating. North Carolina can sit back and feel confident in its national title-worthy defense, which returns 10 starters from a group that ranked among the top 15 nationally in rushing, passing, total and scoring defense a season ago. Well, maybe nine starters, hinging on the N.C.A.A.’s ruling on Marvin Austin’s eligibility. You can rattle off the names — Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa — and rattle off the players, but U.N.C. must be included in any conversation regarding the best defenses in college football. So bring on the championships, right? A good defense can offset a bad offense, or something to that degree, so start printing the t-shirts, order the hats, size up the rings. Not quite.

For as good as this defense is — and it’s damn good — the offense ranks among the worst in the B.C.S. conferences. It might very well be the worst, or it was a year ago. Nine starters from that offense return in 2010; maybe eight, should another high-profile starter be ruled ineligible by the N.C.A.A.

How bad was this offense in 2010? Start with rushing: U.N.C. ranked 50th nationally in carries, but 79th in yards per games, 87th in yards per carry and 92nd in touchdowns on the ground. Only six teams ranked in the top 75 in carries finished with fewer total yards — and only three teams scored fewer touchdowns.

Here’s the hope in the ground game. The offense line was hampered last fall by injuries, attrition that forced three freshmen into the starting lineup. A year later, that experience could help both the starting group and the second line. Two of those now-sophomores, center Jonathan Cooper and right guard Travis Bond, have remained in the starting lineup. A third, Brennan Williams, will provide depth at tackle. These youngsters will be better. How much better? We won’t know until September, when the line — which also features three returning starters — takes on a stout L.S.U. front seven. They might be pushed around in that one.

In addition, U.N.C. can plan for having a healthy Shaun Draughn at running back. He missed the final four games of 2009 with a shoulder injury, a setback that pushed fellow senior Ryan Houston into the starting lineup. This duo can get it done between the tackles, but neither is going to break a big run; as I noted in the U.N.C. preview, Draughn and Houston combined to make four runs of 20 or more yards. U.N.C. inked a big-play threat in incoming freshman Giovanni Bernard, but he recently tore his A.C.L. during fall practice and will miss the season. Even if the line improves, look for more of the same: three yards, four yards, three yards, four yards. The senior pairing will fight for every yard, but they’re not scaring any defenses.

What about the passing game? Last fall saw the Heels finish 102nd in passing yards per game, 102nd in yards per attempt, 105th in interceptions thrown, 86th in touchdowns and 98th in passing efficiency. Will we see improvement in 2010? No, not unless a light turns on for senior T.J. Yates.

His junior season was an unquestioned step back for Yates, who played well when healthy in 2008. He was woefully inconsistent last fall, with a number of ineffective performances bailed out by the U.N.C. defense. Take his three-interception showing at Boston College — a game the Heels won, 31-13, thanks to a pair of defensive touchdowns. Unless we see a massive one-year transformation from Yates, expect more of the same.

There’s worse news. While it would be surprising if he missed the entire season, receiver Greg Little’s eligibility is in doubt. Little’s alleged missteps, though paling in comparison to those alleged to have been committed by Marvin Austin, should cost him at least one or two games; to be fair, I’d be surprised if he was sidelined for more than that. Still, if Little is unavailable for an extended period of time… it’s not good. U.N.C. does have a pair of sophomores coming off solid rookie seasons in Jheranie Boyd and Erik Highsmith — the latter finished second on the team with 37 receptions — but the passing game cannot exist without Little. He’s excelled at this spot since moving out to receiver midway through the 2008 season.

Best case scenario: the offensive line rounds into form; Houston and Draughn combine for 1,750 yards on the ground, occasionally breaking a big play; Yates takes a sizable step forward; Little is not penalized by the N.C.A.A.; and the youngsters at receiver step up. If all this happens, U.N.C. could be a middle-of-the-road offense in the A.C.C. If it doesn’t, well, the Heels again come near the bottom, and you can cancel any tickets you might have booked for Charlotte in early December.

And all this is a shame, because the defense is damn good.

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