By now, you've surely read three thousand previews of UNC's upcoming season, and they all pretty much play out the same way. The defense will be great, of a caliber with the championship teams of the last couple of years. The offense returns 10 starters from last year, when they were abysmal. They will continue to be abysmal. Carolina will be second or third in the Coastal Division, or something. And... scene.
Of course, if you sat through last season, you're pretty aware that the offense was a near perfect storm of misfortune. The offensive line was decimated by injuries, and didn't manage anything resembling passable until midway through the year. The running game too a couple of weeks to settle on a rotation, after which it promptly lost one of its primary backs for the season to a broken scapula. The passing targets were basically all freshmen, with the exception of converted running back Greg Little and the repeatedly-injured tight end Zach Pianalto, and Yates at quarterback was never going to scramble away from the collapsing O-line to compensate for their inexperience. The easy prediction is that things won't get much better because it's the same players out there, but there's almost certainly going to be more improvement than people think. So what's a reasonable expectation for the season?
Let's start with the running game. It wasn't until the end of the Connecticut game, when Sloop put the ball in the hands of Ryan Houston to grind his way to the winning score, that the Heels hit on their two-back rotation of him and Shaun Draughn. This scheme lasted six games, only to be cut short early in the Duke game with Draughn's injury. Those six games also coincided with three of the easiest defenses Carolina faced in ECU, Georgia Southern, and Florida State, which may weight the scales a little bit. (It also contains the two worst performances, against Georgia Tech and UVa. That line was awfully thin early on.) My original thought was to just look at the stats after the line found it's footing but before the injury took out Draughn, but that's just a three game stretch of GSU, FSU and VT; hardly a fair comparison. So let's look at everything after the Georgia Southern game through the end of the season. Over that 4-2 stretch, UNC averaged 39.7 carries a game for 163.7 yards. That would have been good enough for 4th in the ACC in yards per game and fifth in yards per carry – compare that to the 7th and 8th, respectively, they had for the whole season.
So on the ground at least, UNC is capable of putting up respectable numbers. (And such a performance over the course of the season would probably have at least turned the UVa game into a win.) How about the passing game? At first glance, you can't really go back and compare T.J. Yates pre-injury performance, as having Brandon Tate, Hakeem Nicks and Brooks Foster as receivers will give you much better numbers than the current crop. For the record Yates threw for 2,655 yards with 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions that season; last year his numbers were 2,136 yards, the same 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. It is interesting to compare the increase in passing yardage between the 2006 and 2007, however, when Hicks and Tate went from their first year of serious play to their second while the quarterback switched from Joe Dailey and Cam Sexton to Yates. 2007 brought an increase of almost 550 yards on 51 more attempts. Add an extra yard per completion and a two or three percentage points in completion rate to last year's performance, and you do come close to 2007's numbers. Remember Yates has improved some himself, if not nearly as much as fans would like. 2007's numbers would have been good for sixth in the ACC, for what's it worth.
In short, I think UNC's offense will improve more than a lot of people are thinking. Moving to the top half of the conference in yardage is pretty likely, although don't expect to see them topping any statistical scoring lists. But don't forget Carolina's greatest scoring threat – the defense. UNC had four touchdowns scored on interceptions, and a couple of fumbles returned as well. It's amazing how much a good defense can reduce the pressure on an offense, and allow them to rack up yards in garbage time when protecting a lead. They may just propel the Heels to the ACCC yet.