Is it too early for some football?
Well, ESPN doesn’t think so. And what you can find there doesn’t look especially promising – their model forecasts a 6-6 campaign for the football Tar Heels and rates UNC as the 11th of 14 ACC teams. Athlon? Same ballpark – 5th in the Coastal.
It’s not hard to figure out where this is coming from. North Carolina, a team whose defense has ranged from embarrassing to passable during Fedora’s tenure, just lost a breathtaking amount of talent from its signature offense, including the #2 overall pick in the NFL draft, two drafted running backs, two drafted wide receivers (both of whom were among their best special teams players), three offensive linemen who had been longtime starters, and their best “go up and get it” receiver, also a multiyear starter. To review: that’s 9 of 11 starters, at least five of whom will be playing on Sundays. If you’re a Tar Heel, that’s hard to look at and feel good about the coming season.
And so you have the beginning of a narrative you’ll see a lot of between now and September: it’s one thing to struggle on defense when you have a Ferrari for an offense. It’s entirely another when it’s more like a Big Wheel.
All of which is why Larry Fedora will be named ACC Coach of the Year in 2017.
The thing to understand about Coach of the Year awards is that any relationship they may have to who actually did the best coaching job in a given year is largely coincidental. It doesn’t go to the guy who coached through a raft of injuries to a 7-6 season, no matter how unlikely that was. It doesn’t go to Jimbo Fisher, ever, no matter how good Florida State is, because they’re Florida State (I didn’t believe it either, but you can look it up; he probably has to go undefeated to get it).
For sort of the same reason (or the inverse of it), David Cutcliffe is allowed to win it by going 6-7, because he coaches Duke. It goes to Paul Johnson a lot (three-time winner), I suspect because he runs an offense that looks weird to people. Such luminaries as Mike London, Al Groh, Ralph Friedgen, and Fred Goldsmith are also past winners. The same phenomenon shows up in basketball, where Josh Pastner won ACC Coach of the Year for 2017 for taking a team that had gone 21-15 in 2016 all the way to 21-16 in 2017 (from 8-10 in the ACC to, uh, 8-10).
The reason for this is that the Coach of the Year award is decided by sportswriters. Sportswriters are in the business of writing narratives a lot like the one I just described. Coach of the Year awards should be renamed the “You Either Went Undefeated and What Else Am I Supposed To Do or You Were Better Than My Narrative Said You’d Be” award.
If the early narrative on the 2017 Tar Heels holds, it’s going to be wrong, which is the stuff Coach of the Year trophies are made of. Let’s start with that offense. Here are the scoring averages for Larry Fedora as a head coach, working from 2016 backwards: 32.3, 40.7, 32.8, 32.7, 40.6, 36.9, 36.8, 32.9, 30.6. There are at least two things to take from this.
The first is that when it comes to offense, Fedora is an elite coach. In nine years as a head coach he’s never averaged fewer than 30.6 points per game, and that came in his rookie season at Southern Miss. He’s done it with Southern Miss players, North Carolina players, players he recruited, and players he didn’t. He’s done it with young teams and veteran teams. If you care to bet against his doing it again, be my guest, but every bit of history we have says that’s a bad bet.
The second is that as good as the 2016 offense was, it was nowhere near the peak of the Fed Spread. Pick your explanation as to why (the rash of injuries to the offensive line is the best answer), but the successes the Tar Heels had in 2016 were often because of a maturing defense picking up when the offense had a rough stretch.
Oh, yes. That maturing defense. The narrative on this side of the ball is that Gene Chizik showed up in Chapel Hill and pulled the defense out of the fire, only to leave it in the hands of some guy named John Papuchis when things seemed to be headed in the right direction, so prepare for disaster. Take nothing away from Chizik, whose time in Chapel Hill could not have come in a better situation and whose ability to teach may be irreplaceable, but the real story of the 2017 defense will be as simple as growing up.
Instead of patching together a defense chiefly composed of talented but undersized and inexperienced underclassmen, Papuchis will have the luxury of a two-deep lineup consisting heavily of juniors and seniors. The advantage of struggling young defenses is that they mature into experienced defenses, and this team has talent – MJ Stewart, Donnie Miles, Andre Smith, Jeremiah Clarke, Dajaun Drennon, and Jalen Dalton are some of the upperclassmen that should lead a defense that for the first time in forever has both talent and depth. Sophomores Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene, DJ Ford, Aaron Crawford, and Jason Stowbridge will all be major contributors, and that’s before we get to the players taking their first snaps.
Sure, it’s hard to know how deeply Chizik’s departure will be felt, but he has contributed two years of teaching to the vast majority of the players Papuchis will be building a defense from. There’s good reason to be optimistic about another step forward, especially when you realize that while Papuchis may not be the household name Chizik was, he’s an experienced coordinator, having served in the role at Nebraska, and having had a hand in many successful defenses there as well as at LSU.
Last but not least: the offensive players the Tar Heels are replacing aren’t having to have their roles filled by kids whose last real snap happened in a high school stadium with 450 fans. Of the nine offensive vacancies, four will be filled by graduate transfers from elite football environments: LSU (QB Brandon Harris), Southern Cal (OL Khaliel Rodgers), Auburn (RB/WR Stanton Truitt), and Florida (C Cameron Dillard).
These aren’t castoffs, but players ready to contribute immediately who have seen the highest levels of competition that college football has to offer, every one of whom would have been considered a recruiting coup had the Tar Heels landed them as freshmen. Combined with a group of talented underclassmen, with a bit of time this offense should look a great deal more like one who lost five players than one that lost nine. Fedora has had to solve far tougher problems than that.
The quick-look preseason analysis of UNC football will result mostly in predictions of between five and seven wins. Here’s suggesting that you simply remain silent as they come in, take bets where you can get them, and get ready for a season that’s a great deal more fun than you’ll be led to believe is possible.
If that’s how things play out, Fedora will need to clear some space on his shelf.