The Carolina faithful, made up of players and fans alike, have high hopes for 2016. The Tar Heels finished the 2015 campaign with an ACC Coastal Division title under its belt, along with an ACC Championship Game appearance. With almost no drop off at quarterback, strong returners on the offensive line, and role players-turned-stars popping up all over the place, Carolina can see itself making strides this season once again. The computer says differently, though. What does it know anyway?
The brains behind the computers, Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau, have created two of the most reputable statical approaches in college football. The FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index) looks at offensive possessions, and the ability to score against quality opponents. Connelly’s S&P+ rankings look at what he calls the most important five factors in college football. These include efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. Connelly and Fremeau use a computer model to crunch the stats, and uniquely rank each team. The two indexes also come together to form a F/+ ranking.
What do all these numbers say about the Heels? Here’s the S/P+ projections for ACC teams as far as total wins:
Will Carolina really go 7-5 this regular season? Let’s look at how last year went. At the end of the 2014 season, UNC was ranked 70th in the country on the F/+ rankings. I can't find exactly where the Heels started the 2015 season, but I believe they would be somewhere around there. By the end of the season, UNC was up to No. 24 in the country and were amid College Football Playoff conversation. (Okay, like not actually, but in my head an ACC title would have made things verrryyy interesting.)
No computer could have predicted a comeback win against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, a team that went on to beat FSU. Or a Thursday night primetime win against a fairly solid Pittsburgh team at Heinz Field. Let’s also not forget the absolute destruction of both Miami and Duke. And last but not least, a gutsy overtime win in Blacksburg in Frank Beamer’s last game to win the Coastal, probably wasn't projected either.
How did they do it? Marquise Williams’ arm helped. So did Ryan Switzer’s legs, along with those of T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. However, one thing belonging to each player on that team that definitely helped them win 11 straight? Heart.
Remember when #IGotYourBack started trending on twitter? Carolina lost its season opener to University of South Carolina, and everybody outside of the program wrote them off. Even when they started winning game after game, UNC players didn't feel like they were getting the respect they deserved. But they DID feel like they had each other’s backs. It didn't matter what the rankings or national media said. The Heels had a “It doesn't matter what they say, were going to keep winning together” mindset that cannot be contained by ranks, projections, or calculations.
Even before the loss to Georgia last weekend, the computer thinks Carolina will backslide from their progress last year. I think the coaching staff should print off the F/+ rankings and paste them all over the locker room. Responding to haters with electrifying play on the field worked last year, how about this year?
When I was in Atlanta with my father last weekend for the Georgia game, a Bulldogs fan approached us while in line for the bathroom. My father was wearing a Carolina football jersey, and the man says to him, “oh so UNC does have football jerseys! I thought they only sold basketball ones...” A clear dig on the relevance of UNC Football. My natural reaction was to get a little angry, and tell him off.
I wonder what Switzer or Howard or Trubisky or Lawrence or Hollins or Fedora would say to that UGA fan? They would probably just laugh and say “Just wait and see,” or something clearly more clever than that.
Because that’s what they do. Carolina Football has a culture of proving the haters and doubters wrong. A bounce back win at Illinois was a good start, now let’s see how much these boys believe in themselves this season. The answer might surprise you...and the computer.