I find myself looking at UNC's 2-2 record so far and feeling pretty disappointed. Which is odd, as I have maintained all through the offseason that no one really had any idea how Carolina was going to perform this season, myself included. I eventually set the benchmark for success at 8-4, but loaded it with caveats. Both the offense and defense would be new, and anything was possible. How happy I would be at the end of the season was directly related to the kind of ride this team would take me on.
And then UNC started the season off by destroying Elon. Yes, it was Elon, the now also 2-2 Southern Conference school, but still, things seemed to be clicking, and the possibilities began to present themselves. Right in time for the Tar Heels to lose two heartbreaking games back-to-back. Suddenly there were stretches where the play was so bad it was embarrassing, yet other times things seemed ready to fall into play. Carolina had dramatic comebacks that fell just short, teasing fans until they're miserable. It's maddening.
Luckily, UNC is not alone. No, as proud members of the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, we can march bravely forward knowing that the fans of every team we will face the season has felt that same punch in the gut this September. Nobody's undefeated, nobody's happy, and every team has serious flaws. There's a reason the win probabilities for this season were smeared out like a stain, after all.
Let's start with the still presumptive favorites to represent the division in Charlotte, Virginia Tech. The Hokies have one of the more embarrassing losses on the schedule. After eking out a win over Georgia Tech in the opening week, every thing seemed to be going VT's way, until they lost to winless, hapless, Pittsburgh. By 18. Gobbler Country took issue with his team's offensive line, in particular:
I've long been a proponent of the "fire Stinespring" side, but perhaps Curt Newsome needs to have some more pressure put on him. Sure, Stiney called some dumbass plays, but it doesn't help that any line coached by Newsome likes to just stand around after almost inevitably missing their blocks and letting the pressure be put on the quarterback. I think we have and have had talented players in the positions, but they have been coached improperly and as a result, our offense has looked poor at best.
It's tough to get a bead on quarterback Logan Thomas's improvement if his offensive line is falling to pieces around him. And then there's the fact that Tech was supposed to be one of the few Coastal teams to have a respectable defense; Giving up 35 points to Pittsburgh was unexpected to say the least The Hokie secondary was burned repeatedly; they're young. The defensive line couldn't put much pressure on the Pitt backfield. All of this bodes very well for UNC, who lead the ACC both in sacks and fewest sacks allowed. Fedora's offense is also designed to burn secondaries and then go underneath them when they play off the ball. Bryn Renner could have a very successful day in two weeks.
Next there's Georgia Tech, who after dropping their opener to the Hokies absolutely destroyed Virginia to get their mojo back. The Yellow Jackets were all set to lay waste to the rest of the division in a similar fashion, but instead gave up 42 points to a Miami team that Kansas State had destroyed by 39. Now the Hurricanes had an offense good enough to light up Boston College, but we expected better from the folks in Atlanta. So did From the Rumble Seat.
Sorry...I can't pick any players of value who as a unit combined to allow 609 yards (7.3 yards per play) and absolutely disappeared from the 4th quarter on. There wasn't any facet of the Hurricane offense was remotely stopped, whether it was the 5.4 YPC rushing allowed, or the 436 yards passing allowed to Stephen Morris. Good on Jemea Thomas for picking off Stephen Morris, and Brandon Watts causing a fumble...but those were the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal day.
Tech's defensive woes put them on equal footing with, well, the rest of the division. They're always the toughest Carolina opponent to predict, as their untraditional triple-option offense has stymied the Tar Heels for years. Although UNC has always played them early in the season, while the Yellow Jackets taper off every November. Still, Carolina's defense is both still new and often confused; expect a ridiculously high score if nothing else.
You could in fact make a similar description of Miami. With the exception of the shellacking in Manhattan, the Hurricanes have scored 38+ points every time they've taken the field. They've also given up 30+ points in three games, at that Kansas State game was an absolute disaster. Or as The 7th Floor puts it:
After the horrendous defensive performance in Chestnut Hill, we were all waiting for the hammer to drop and the inevitable blow out to occur. We just didn't expect it so soon. But like a teenage girl texting and driving straight into a car wreck, it's a lot more noticeable how unavoidable it was in hindsight. The youth on the two deep, specifically the defensive side, is going to produce deer in headlights reactions coupled with poor technique and execution. Add all those up in the same game, and you get half a hundo put on you, in embarrassing fashion.
Again, when the the Tar Heels head down to Florida we can expect a shootout, and I'm not to confident in how those can go. Carolina's offense can still stumble to find their feet, as they did for stretches against ECU and the entire first half of the Louisville game. Plus UNC will face Miami one week after what is sure to be an exhausting Virginia Tech game. What I once thought would be among the easier Coastal matchups may prove to be the most difficult.
And then there's Virginia, who with two straight losses is slipping ever closer to dumpster fire territory. There are many morning-after examinations to chose from at Streaking the Lawn. I'm particularly fond of this one:
There's no real magic wand to be waved here, I don't think. Sims isn't going to all of a sudden make the offense that much better (as evidenced by the performance of the team while he was in during the first three games this year). We have 3-4 very good running backs, but they're not even able to get it done. We've got a group of solid receivers from the rangy Tim Smith, to the shifty Darius Jennings to the reliable Jake McGee. But Rocco doesn't have time to hit them. What's the common theme here? The line. I had been told the line would be an issue this year. But I honestly did not expect it to be this big of an issue. It is, though, and it looks like we might have to start game planning around it rather than just hoping that they get better. Through three games, we haven't seen much improvement. I'm kind of hoping someone with a little more knowledge of line play can tell me what is going on. Is it just inexperience at the interior slots? Is it a technique issue? Is it just a lack of talent? Do we have younger guys who may have more talent or better technique? I just don't know enough about o-line play to say much other than that they're not being effective.
The key takeaway here is that the defense can be as bad as a lot of others in this division, but the offense has particular problems of its own. The running game can't find purchase and the offensive line is pretty sieve-like. All of that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and the Cavaliers have two, both vying for the starting spot. By the end of the TCU game, Philip Sims was getting the snap over Mike Rocco, but neither was effective. If one does a grip on the job and the playbook - and let's face it, it probably will be Sims - the fact that UNC doesn't see the Wahoos until mid-November cn spell trouble. I don't have to remind anyone of a floundering State team of a few years back who suddenly got their quarterback and proceeded to run the table to close the season, including smacking down the Tar Heels. We don't want that from another rival.
So that's the current portrait of the Coastal Division in disarray. Except for Duke, who's just happy to be 3-1, just like I said they would. The Blue Devils can still make a bowl game; Virginia I would be less confident in. How everyone else will finish out, UNC included? I haven't a clue. I think I know less about this race than I did before the season started. Still, that 7-1 or 6-2 conference record is dangling in front of me, begging me to hope. I'd love to see Carolina qualify for the ACCC, even if they're ineligible. Whether it can happen in this tangled briar patch of a division is anybody's guess.