Back in August WTVD's Mark Armstrong tweeted this out regarding the upcoming season.
North Carolina: Elijah Hood -- 1049.5 yds rushing Marquise W -- 31.5 Total TDs UNC Defense -- 31.5 PPG— Mark Armstrong (@ArmstrongABC11) August 25, 2015
We tackled each of these in this post. Little did we know at the time, these expectations showed how much what we thought about this team was wrong.
Elijah Hood 1049.5 yards rushing
Yeah, I think most people had this pegged wrong but not because of Hood. As I noted in August, the issue wasn't Hood's ability to run for over 1000 yards but Larry Fedora's willingness to use him. Through three years under Fedora, UNC had just one running back who clocked 18 carries or more per game and that was Gio Bernard. For Hood to eclipse 1000 yards, he would need to get the same kind of usage as Bernard.
Hood didn't quite get 18 carries per game but came close with almost 16. Yet his rushing average was over six yards per play which is easily top five in UNC history for the season. Needless to say the Charlotte sophomore was as advertised and UNC's offensive line was incredibly good for most of the season. Hood is presently at 1345 yards on the season with one game left. As a team UNC ran the ball 37.7 times per game which is in line with what UNC has done in the previous three Fedora coached seasons.
Marquise Williams 31.5 total TDs
This is the one that most believed to be a mortal lock, especially if the logic held true on Hood's production. It didn't so Williams was probably not as productive on touchdowns as we originally thought. Williams did end up passing the 31.5 mark in the 13th game of the season on Saturday putting him at 33 touchdowns for the year. That is actually two fewer touchdowns than last season when Williams had 35 in 13 games.
Considering UNC scored eight more touchdowns this season than in 2014, Williams percentage of the scoring actually went down. In 2014, Williams accounted for 58% of the touchdowns scored. This season Williams is responsible for 48% of UNC's touchdowns. Hood's 17 touchdowns(up from four last season) is the primary factor in the shift away from Williams. UNC also kicked 13 more field goals this season which also served to distribute the scoring differently.
UNC defense 31.5 ppg
This is the one people couldn't quite grasp because it was difficult to believe a team could improve that much over one season. UNC's 2014 defense was so awful that it was nearly impossible to imagine anything other than marginal improvements. After all these were the same players and despite a new coaching staff, a move to the 4-3 base defense and expected player development, the best case scenario was deemed maybe a touchdown per game improvement.
Try almost three touchdowns per game better than last season. After Clemson put up 45 points on the Tar Heels Saturday night the scoring defense now sits at 22.6. A far cry from the 39.0 points UNC gave up last season. In 2014, the Tar Heels gave up 50 points three times, 40 points six times and had just three opponents end the game with fewer than 30 points. This season just four teams broke 30 points and one, Clemson, made it past the 40 point barrier. UNC held seven teams to less than 20 points.
While teams still managed to move the ball on UNC, two significant improvements led to a much lower points per game allowed. One was a reduction in explosive plays. UNC did a much better job keeping teams from hitting the big pass play or chunk run.
UNC allowed roughly half as many plays of the 40 to 90 yard variety but also showed improvement in 10 to 30 yard plays.
There is also the "bend but don't break" aspect of this defense. A year ago, team scored on 89% of red zone possessions with 72% of those finding the end zone. This season, UNC's held teams to 80% in the red zone, a modest number to be sure but a significant improvement. On touchdowns UNC went from giving up 72% to 60%. Again, 60% isn't great(72nd overall) but after last season it was a huge step in the right direction.
This season has been about shedding old habits and bucking conventional expectations for UNC football. Even on these three elements that most people thought that had a grasp, we were wrong.