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Carolina football’s path to a Coastal title

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The Heels are five relative toss-up wins away from securing a Coastal crown.

South Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Heading into the first of two bye weeks of the 2019 season, the North Carolina Tar Heels are positioned better than objective observers could have hoped. At 3-3 (2-1 in conference play), Carolina is a legitimate threat to start the postseason where the regular season started — in Charlotte against an opponent from the awkwardly-shaped state on our Southern border.

With a surprising early win against Miami, and a less-surprising-yet-rare win in Atlanta, the Tar Heels are 2-0 against ACC Coastal Division foes. In an eight-game sample, division wins are doubly important as they create two games of separation when accounting for head-to-head tiebreakers. The loss to Clemson, though disappointing, is of minimal impact.

As of right now, the Coastal “contenders” are likely the four zero-or-one loss teams, with a caveat that Miami can get back in the conversation if they cryogenically froze their 2001 offensive line and sneak them onto the roster undetected. Virginia is the leader in the clubhouse on the strength of its win over co-contender Pitt, and cross-divisional foe Florida State (putting the Heels behind by a loss in that category).

With six games to go, how do the Tar Heels shape up against their five remaining ACC opponents? Are the Heels in position to blow right past “make a bowl” to where the division should be the realistic goal?

The answers are “pretty well” and “maybe so”. Let’s dig into it.

First, Know Thyself

I’m going to lay out each future opponent by the following metrics: Strength of Schedule (as of 10/10/19— the State/Syracuse game will not be reflected), SP+ ranking (opponent-adjusted metrics, with preseason projections still sprinkled in), and Yards Per Play on each side of the ball.

The Tar Heels, per those metrics:

SOS: 18
SP+: 61 (44th Offense, 75th Defense, 95th ST)
YPP: 78th (Offense), 77th (Defense)

Among future opponents, the Tar Heels have played the toughest schedule to date. Three losses to teams with a combined 15-0 record will get you there in a hurry. The offense, as you will see, stacks up very well on an opponent-adjusted basis, the defense— not so much.

The quality of Carolina’s early schedule is heavily reflected in the yards per play measure, and can be explained pretty simply: an offense comprised completely of underclassmen facing two elite (Clemson and Miami) and a few above average-to-good defenses will be weighed down. I...don’t need to go into great detail with this, do I?

Virginia Tech (3-3, 1-2 ACC)

SOS: 77
SP+: 75 (68th offense, 68th defense, 76th ST)
YPP: 102 offense, 68 defense

Holy moly, have the Hokies fallen from grace quickly. Many pointed to the experience from a young and depleted defense to lead a renaissance in 2019, and...it hasn’t happened for Bud Foster.

Offensively, Hendon Hooker gave the Hokies a boost in Miami Gardens last Saturday, but his first three scoring drives covered a combined 93 yards. The running game won’t scare you, and asking Hooker to beat comparable opponents with his feet is unfair to the young man from Greensboro.

The Heels are 65.7% likely to win in Blacksburg on the 19th, per ESPN’s FPI. That sounds about right.

Duke (3-2, 1-1 ACC)

SOS: 46
SP+ 46 (73rd offense, 41st defense, 31st ST)
YPP: 98 offense, 39 defense

Duke. Duke, Duke, Duke...what are we going to do with you? After getting predictably shellacked by Alabama in their opener, the Blue Devils looked like bona fide Coastal contenders. That’s Pitt showed up to Wallace Wade Stadium, punched them in the mouth, and withstood a late comeback despite 15 penalties for 145 yards by the Panthers.

I don’t know what to make of Quentin Harris, except that the pass numbers don’t look exceptional— 64% completions, 6.3 yards per attempt. The running game has been marginally better, and the defense has been, by Duke standards, adequate.

The Heels do have the much-ballyhooed in-state FBS losing streak to worry about, and David Cutcliffe is one of the better tactical coaches in the game. FPI has the Heels winning 56.1% of the time, but FPI doesn’t account for the weirdness of this rivalry. Toss a coin, and see if the Heels can get to 4-1 in-conference.

Virginia (4-1, 2-0 ACC)

SOS: 41
SP+: 40 (85th offense, 23rd defense, 51st ST)
YPP: 87 offense, 14 defense

About 10 hours after this posts, we’ll know a good bit more about the Wahoos. They’re basically a pick ‘em at Miami, and Heels fans should be cheering for the Hurricanes.

Bryce Perkins has been pretty underwhelming at quarterback, and the offense has stalled as a result. The Cavaliers won’t win in a track meet...because their defense won’t allow it. Led by guys like Charles Snowden and Bryce Hall, Virginia’s defense is rendering all comers inefficient and non-explosive— a good recipe for success.

FPI has the Heels as 56.5% likely to win at home, and that’s wonderful because if the first two results come out positive for the Heels, this game should more or less settle the ACC Coastal. I’d caution that that may be a little optimistic before we see what happens the next three weeks.

Pitt (4-2, 1-1 ACC)

SOS: 28
SP+: 57 (112th offense, 15th defense, 111th ST)
YPP: 109 offense, 20 defense

YOU try to figure out what the Pitt Panthers are going to do on a week-to-week basis, save inexplicably beating Duke and losing to Larry Fedora every year. Nice 7-point loss at Penn State? Sure, recalibrate expectations upward. Sleepy 20-10 win over Ohio? Not great. Upset win over UCF? Recalibrate upward again. Needing a late TD to secure a win over FCS Delaware? They suck again. Beat Duke at Duke? Hey!

In Year 5 of the Pat Narduzzi experience, they have a defense that can do what he wants to do— bring hair-on-fire pressure with a Cover 4 over the top. Its working, based on the defensive numbers.

The offense? Georgia Tech, with a slight bonus for knowing what they would theoretically like to do. Kenny Pickett has shown a penchant for fourth-quarter heroics, but that’s about it. The usually-good Pitt running game? Averaging 3.4 yards per carry, good for 107th in the nation.

Pitt owes the Tar Heels a beatdown of epic proportions after the past six years, in which the Heels have won each game by an average of 4.5 points, and never more than seven. Given the road trip, FPI sees this as the most toss-up of the Heels’ five toss-ups, with the Tar Heels a 52% favorite to win.

Pitt fans, feel free to tell us how it goes awry this time.

N.C. State (3-2, 0-1 ACC)

SOS: 91 (lol)
SP+: 58 (81st offense, 43rd defense, 46th ST)
YPP: 87 offense, 20 defense

If the Tar Heels were to win the preceding four games (plus Mercer), it stands logically that Virginia will have won out after UNC, and be sitting at 7-1 in the league, giving State the chance to play spoiler.

I’m a little surprised at their defensive numbers, based on the eye test I got watching the West Virginia and Florida State losses. The defense inflated its numbers quite well by putting the clamps on the latitude-directional Carolina schools (ECU and WCU).

Exit Matt McKay, enter Bailey Hockman at QB. Neither has done much, with McKay leading the two at a paltry 6.1 yards per attempt. My gut is that Devin Leary will be the Wolfpack starter by the time this game rolls around.

Even on the road, FPI has the Heels as a 57.5% favorite, placing the Wolfpack somewhere between Pitt and Virginia Tech for quality. Here’s hoping that continues to skew towards the Hokies.

Can the Heels Get to 7-1?

Short answer, probably not. Adding up the FPI likelihoods would give the Heels a 6.22 percent chance of winning out. Depending on which game you count as an L, the Heels are anywhere from 9-12% to go 4-1 in these five.

On the other hand, the numbers would go to show that the Heels are: the most battle-tested of these teams, have hands-down the best offense among them, and the defense— which is the worst among these six programs— is only marginally worse than Virginia Tech, and should rise as it gets more credit for the offenses it has already faced.

Getting to bowl eligibility should happen, barring anything catastrophic. Getting to Charlotte, despite being the only Coastal contender with a built-in loss to Clemson? Very much on the table.