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UNC Football: Four keys to success

These four quick and easy stats will help the Heels find success this fall

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

UNC’s first football game of the season is 10 days away, and plenty of time and energy has been spent previewing the upcoming season. Today is no different, as we look at four very quick and easy to understand keys to success for the Heels this season. These overall keys to success aren’t complicated to understand and certainly are not comprehensive. (I said this was quick and easy).

However, among the items that will not be covered are topics like “stay healthy” and “play better”. Both statements are accurate. We get it. Last year sucked. Fortunately, we have 12 (hopefully 13!) new games to look forward to over the next 3 months. Let’s get to it.

Score More Points

Yeah, that seems obvious. But in case you needed a reminder, last year was arguably UNC’s worst offensive season since 2009. That year the Heels averaged 23.5 points per game, compared to 26 points per game in 2017. Both seasons they ranked 83rd in scoring offense. That was a career low for Larry Fedora as a head coach, including his time at Southern Mississippi.

The following are UNC’s total touchdowns, total points, and average points scored in the Fedora era. Their final offensive scoring rank is in parenthesis.

2012: 62 touchdowns, 487 total points, 40.6 ppg, (8th)
2013: 55 touchdowns, 425 total points, 32.7 ppg, (43rd)
2014: 60 touchdowns, 432 total points, 33.2 ppg (38th)
2015: 73 touchdowns, 570 total points, 40.7 ppg, (9th)
2016: 54 touchdowns, 420 total points, 32.3 ppg, (44th)
2017: 41 touchdowns, 312 total points, 26.0 ppg (83rd)

Whatever you take away from those numbers, there is no denying that UNC has to reenter the top-45 – at a minimum—if they want to have a major bounce back year. Even then, that still may not help them achieve more than 7 wins. That was their average win total for 2013, 2014, and 2016 when they finished 43rd, 38th, and 44th. With a deep backfield and talented receiving corps, there are reasons for optimism.

Don’t let the other team score more points

I know. Obvious. Again. Over the years, the UNC defense has taken a beating – both on and off the field. Whether they fail to get off the field on third down (see the next section), give up catastrophic plays, or just plain forget how to tackle, the defensive side of the ball has taken literal and figurative beatings. Just how bad have they been?

Here are the same numbers listed above for scoring defense.

2012: 38 touchdowns, 308 total points, 25.7 ppg, (53rd)
2013: 38 touchdowns, 318 total points, 24.5 ppg (43rd)
2014: 67 touchdowns, 507 total points, 39.0 ppg, (119th)
2015: 44 touchdowns, 343 total points, 24.5 ppg (42nd)
2016: 40 touchdowns, 324 total points, 24.9 ppg, (43rd)
2017: 48 touchdowns, 375 total points, 31.3 ppg, (88th)

Similar to the offense, last year seems to be more of an anomaly than indicative of a trend. This is especially true if you, like myself, thought the defense played better than last season’s final record indicated. It was also surprising to see the Heels have hovered near the top 50 of scoring defense, which is a metric that most concerned Gene Chizik and now John Papuchis. It’s what helped mold the “bend but don’t break” mindset that has come to define most of the recent UNC teams.

Those results certainly were not spectacular, but they weren’t quite as defeatist as the rhetoric leads us to believe. Now, with a deep defensive line and talented secondary, the pieces could be in place to re-enter the top one-third of NCAA defenses.

Stay on the field. Get off the field.

On offense, UNC converted 51 out of 165 third down opportunities. That 30.67% conversion rate was the 119th best in the country. The two seasons prior to that, UNC ranked 9th (2015) ad 21st (2016). Last season, it also ranked 13th best in the ACC – the first time since 2011 that they did not finish in the top 5 of the conference. A significant improvement is needed and should be expected.

On defense, the Heels allowed their opponents to convert 70 out of 187 attempts. That conversion rate of 37.43% found UNC at 55th in the nation. It was the best third down conversion rate since 2012, and the fourth straight year that number improved.

Without getting into the details of numerous other metrics about extending or ending drives, these are the easiest to digest. It’s fair to expect the offense to improve. It is equally fair to acknowledge that the defense can be better…but also deserve credit for inching that conversion rate to respectability.

Nonetheless, there is not much room for compromise in 2018. Both units have to do better.

Avoid Freebies

There are many gripes about UNC’s coaching staff. Questionable play calling, weird substitution patterns, and a lack of situational awareness top the list for most fans. Those are all understandable complaints.

However, my biggest concern is the utter lack of discipline that is constantly on display. That problem sometimes manifests itself in missed assignments or poor execution. Sometimes it pops up after the season, when 15 players decide to break NCAA rules. Other times it is displayed by the overwhelming number of yellow flags that grace the turf on any given Saturday.

A quick look at the national statistics in penalties shows an alarming trend. North Carolina has finished 100th or worse in five of the previous six years in penalty yards per game. Check out the total penalties, yards penalized, penalties per game (ppg), penalized yards per game (ypg), and final national ranking.

2012: 90 total penalties, 772 penalized yards, 7.5 ppg, 64.3 ypg, (106th)
2013: 96 total penalties, 831 penalized yards, 7.4 ppg, 63.9 ypg, (111th)
2014: 99 total penalties, 821 penalized yards, 7.6 ppg, 63.2 ypg, (107th)
2015: 80 total penalties, 650 penalized yards, 5.7 ppg, 46.4 ypg, (34th)
2016: 99 total penalties, 797 penalized yards, 7.6 ppg, 61.3 ypg, (100th)
2017: 93 total penalties, 872 penalized yards, 7.8 ppg, 72.7 ypg, (123rd)

Granted, not all penalties are created equal. A faster pace of play can lead to more opportunities for penalties, and some fouls are more severe than others. You want your players to show some emotion and sometimes that leads to excessive celebrations or late hits.

If you buy into that line of thinking, cool. Hit me up in the comments or on Twitter. I also can help you buy some oceanfront property in Kansas.

Here’s the deal. This is clearly not something that can blamed on injuries, youth, or lack of talent. This has been a problem for six years, with the exception of one peculiar season. A season, mind you, that ended in 11 wins and ACC Coastal crown.

The idea that UNC can’t get out of its own way certainly has merit.

That’s it. Four easy, simplistic, quick keys to success this year. This game is hard. It is complicated and nuanced. However, no matter how much coaches try to convince us mere mortals otherwise, football is not rocket science.