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The Key Stat for the UNC-Georgia Tech Game

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

I don't want to step on Doc's excellent preview of today's UNC-Georgia Tech game, but I'm starting a new feature on advanced football statistics, and there's a rather important one that spells trouble for the Tar Heels today. (Much of this feature will be based on Bill Connelly's book, Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, a full review of which I'll have soon.)

This week's stat is one that has already burned Carolina this season, average first-down gain. Football is, at it's heart, about getting ten yards in four plays, and the more yards a team can gain on that first snap, the more options they have for subsequent plays. And to be quite honest, Paul Johnson's triple option offense is very good at getting those yards on first down, and UNC is very bad at defending them.

Average First Down Gain Offense Defense
North Carolina 4.15 yards 7.62 yards
Georgia Tech 6.80 yards 3.38 yards

Now it's true, UNC's opponents have been a little tougher than the slate the Yellow Jackets have faced. Georgia Tech has only played Elon and Duke, but the Blue Devils were on the road, and GT actually improved on their numbers. Against Duke, the Yelow Jackets averaged a whopping 7.44 yards on first down, compared to only 6.17 yards per play for the entire game. 9 of their 32 snaps went for ten yards or more; they caught the Duke defense flat-footed mostly with option runs. Quarterback Vad Lee attempted 8 of his 16 passes on first down, but only completed two of them and threw his only interception on a third.

Carolina, on the other hand, has been burned on first downs once before this season. South Carolina hurt the Heels right out of the gate with a whopping 11.71 average first down gain in Columbia. That included touchdown passes of 65 and 29 yards, as well as Mike Davis's 75-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach. UNC's defense still hasn't corrected last year's problem with mental lapses that plagued them last year, when Georgia Tech had four first-down touchdowns in the highest-scoring game in ACC history.

Carolina's offense, meanwhile, is struggling to get off the blocks. Their 2.17 average yards on first down against South Carolina was abysmal, in large part due to a struggling running game. They did better against Middle Tennessee, with 5.7 yards on average, but the running game is averaging under four yards per carry in both games this season, and the Heels are having to resort to their passing game a lot. (Georgia Tech, of course, rarely passes, but succeeds wildly when they do, averaging over 20 yards per completion.)

These first down gains are a big reason why Tech's offensive ratings are dwarfing UNC's at the moment. And while neither defense is lighting the world on fire, Tech's under Ted Roof may have improved a lot more in the offseason than Carolina's did. Put that together and it could be a rough day for the Tar Heels.