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UNC vs. Oregon: X-Factor

With all of the transfers in the secondary, what sort of defense will we see?

NCAA Football: ACC Football Championship-Clemson at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Like many offseasons, this has been one of change for the Tar Heels. Almost as soon as the clock hit 0:00 against Clemson, the announcements flew. We’ve discussed the changeover at the Offensive Coordinator spot, but it’s tough to see how any change in that spot is going to be noticeable in such a short time. Chances are that the offense, which hasn’t seen a lot of that change otherwise, will look pretty similar.

The defense, though?

In the end, six Tar Heel defensive backs entered the transfer portal, including notable names such as Tony Grimes, Storm Duck, and Cam Kelly. While the Tar Heels have been active in getting folks back from the portal, they won’t be able to play in this game, and that could be a problem against an Oregon offensive attack that is scoring nearly 40 points a game, getting over 291 yards in the air, and in general is so balanced to the point where they can hurt you in either way. Thirty two touchdowns on the ground, 28 touchdowns in the air, and it’s a team that is going to find your weakness to exploit it.

The secondary is...going to be a weakness.

Now Carolina has several freshmen who can step in and probably expect to see some action, and the likelihood was that Carolina used their bowl practices to get them up to speed. There’s also the big news that the NCAA will not count a bowl game played towards the four games that would lose a player their redshirt status. It’s completely possible that, in order to try and keep Oregon guessing, there will be a revolving door in the defensive backfield.

That said, will Gene Chizik try to use his “bend don’t break” style of defense or will he decide to just go all out with pressure up front? The Tar Heels didn’t lose as much in the linebacker and defensive line spots, and perhaps the bowl game is the one where you throw a wrinkle that the other team isn’t going to see. The Ducks are coming in losers of two of their last three, and they only scored 17 points in their win against Utah, the eventual Pac 12 champion.

The secondary also figures into the X-Factor in this way: what changes are still coming?

There’s been so much that’s happened these last three weeks that it’s easy to forget that a lot of the major changes that occurred for Carolina last season didn’t occur until after the bowl game. Jay Bateman’s departure wasn’t announced until January 7th, over a week after the Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss. All of the changes on the offensive side of the ball were precipitated by Phil Longo moving on to Wisconsin, but when a school isn’t going to let their head coach go, they typically wait until after bowl season to reorganize the coaching staff. The mass of departures on defense and specifically the secondary begs us to ask: is more coming? Is this just a case of players who stuck it out and realized over the course of the season that they weren’t a fit for Chizik, or were they made aware of changes and didn’t want to hang around for it?

A squad that is going through the motions before impending change may make it difficult to perform well, or maybe they’ll want to show out for the changes to get a leg up for next season. With new talent coming in the pecking order begins now.

In the end, a side of the ball that was torched all year and seems destined to be the biggest weakness on Wednesday is the one to watch. Any performance that’s better than expected might allow the Tar Heels to sneak out of San Diego with a win.