The Sleeper of the Coastal: Why the North Carolina Tar Heels Could Be the Surprise of the ACC

When North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora and his team walked off the field following a 40-21 loss to Rutgers in the inaugural Quick Lane Bowl last December, there could only be reflection and thought about how their 2014 season slipped away.

The 524 yards of total offense allowed and 40 points given up in the bowl finale officially closed the book on one of the worst defenses in ACC history, a problem which Coach Fedora vowed to remedy in the off-season. Last year, the Tar Heels ranked 117th out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, as they allowed an average of 497.8 yards per game and 67 total touchdowns. The 31 passing touchdowns that torched their secondary was an Atlantic Coast Conference record. To make matters worse, they were 122nd in the country in third down defense, giving up first downs at a rate of 49%. Ouch.

Enter new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the former Auburn head coach who led the Tigers to a 2010 National Championship with Cam Newton at quarterback. While Chizik’s defenses as head coach at Auburn varied considerably from year to year, he is a proven commodity as a defensive coordinator. As defensive coordinator in the 2002 season, the beginning of his first stint with the Tigers, the team finished 13th nationally in points allowed, only giving up 17.8 points per game against a schedule that stacked up as the 22nd toughest in college football. The success as defensive coordinator continued in the following seasons for Chizik, as Auburn finished fifth in total defense in 2003 and 2004, and their 11.3 points per game allowed in the 2004 season led college football. In 2015, in order for the Tar Heels to compete for a conference title, they do not need to be a top ten defense, especially when the offense is as explosive as theirs can be. They simply need to improve.

Marquise Williams scrambles against Virginia Tech last season.

Speaking of the offense, the ‘Heels return 10 out of 11 starters on that side of the ball, and it all begins with their dual threat quarterback Marquise Williams. Williams is Mr.Everything for the powdered blue, as he is coming off of a 2014 campaign in which he completed 63% of his passes for over 3,000 yards, while tossing 21 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. In addition to the work with his arm, Williams led the team in rushing with 193 carries for 788 yards and 13 touchdowns. Assuming he stays healthy for the duration of the schedule, Larry Fedora has a proven veteran quarterback, which is so pivotal to success at the FBS level.

Not only does Marquise Williams return, but his offensive line and all of his offensive weapons are back as well. The running game is in good hands with junior T.J. Logan, senior Romar Morris, and sophomore Elijah Hood. The trio combined for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns to spell their quarterback’s running ability last season. At receiver, kick returning extraordinaire Ryan Switzer and his 757 receiving yards return in the slot, along with three huge 6’5″ targets in Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, and Bug Howard. Davis, Hollins, and Howard had 16 total touchdowns between the three of them a year ago, and they provide Williams with big targets on the outside and in the red zone. The Tar Heels finished last season ranked 45th nationally in total offense and averaged 429.8 yards per game. These numbers should remain constant, and even have a chance to improve with another year of continuity in the offensive system.

With a spectacular offense and improved defense, there stands a very good chance the ‘Heels will improve. Additionally, they play in the lesser of the two divisions in the ACC, and their scheduling draw for this season in conference is quite good. While they draw Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech on the road, they do not play Florida State or Clemson out of the Atlantic division, and their third toughest conference game against Miami is at home. It is not inconceivable for the ‘Heels to go 6-2 in the ACC with losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and go to the conference championship. The Hokies have questions on offense and typically fall victim to the upset bug at some point throughout their schedule in conference (See 6-3 double overtime loss to Wake last November). Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets have a brutal schedule, featuring dates at Clemson, at Miami, and a home game against Florida State. Georgia Tech could own the conceivable tiebreak against North Carolina, but could end up losing more than two games in conference play anyway.

At the end of the day, consistency on both sides of the football will rule the day. Larry Fedora is coaching for his job this season, and his team must play with a chip on their shoulder. The defense will improve, but unless they limit the big plays in the secondary that broke games open for their opponents in 2014, the improvement will not be large enough to propel them into serious conference contention. All questions will be answered soon, beginning with when they take the field this Thursday night against the South Carolina Gamecocks.


Follow me on Twitter @MikeMcDanielACC and check out InsideTheACC on Facebook and on Twitter @InsideTheACC.


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