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The optimist’s guide to UNC upsetting Miami

Vegas has Miami favored by 8, but there are reasons to believe.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As of this writing, the forecast looks dim: the Vegas line for this Saturday’s UNC-Miami tilt stands at Miami -8.

That information has meaning beyond sports books and pick’em pools. Historically, a line of 8 points means a win probability of 73.8% for the favorite. And on paper, there are other reasons for worry. Miami ranks 7th nationally in offensive yards per play (6.9), compared to UNC’s 49th (5.8). The other side of the ball is similarly grim: Miami ranks 5th in YPP allowed (4.0), vs. UNC’s 51st/5.4. I could go on, but you get the point: the oddsmakers aren’t crazy.

The conventional storylines seem to point in the same direction. You know the ones: Mark Richt, fired for winning 10 games a season at Georgia, is a huge upgrade over Al Golden and has made Miami The U again, realizing the potential of the talent that was already on the roster. Meanwhile, UNC was exposed by Bud Foster’s defense last week, presents roughly the resistance of humid air to the run, and, let’s be honest, is about 12 seconds away from a record of 2-4.

But there’s a case to be made that the game isn’t what it appears.

Let’s start with the Richt-as-miracle-worker storyline. Even if we grant that he’s an improvement, the narrative is ahead of the reality here. In five games, Miami has beaten Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic, Appalachian State, and Georgia Tech. This is not murderers’ row, and it is not wildly different than their opening 3-0 against FAU, Nebraska, and Bethune-Cookman under Golden last season before losing to Cincinnati and FSU (they also beat GT last season).

Furthermore, in their home loss against FSU, they totaled 19 points against a defense that had allowed 34 or more points against everyone they’d played not named Charleston Southern, which raises credible questions about how much weight to give to what the team looks like on paper. Simply put, Miami has been tested only once and lost. You may or may not believe that Mark Richt’s first year will be a change in sea level for Miami football, but the on-field results don’t justify treating Miami as if they’re all the way back just yet.

If Miami is not as good as their statistics, the Tar Heels are almost certainly better. Their numbers, particularly on offense, are badly skewed by Hurricane Matthew. No one likes to use the weather as an excuse, but there simply is no basis upon which to believe that the North Carolina offense is anything like the one that put 128 total yards and three points up last weekend. No Larry Fedora offense has ever put up a stinker like that, and there’s no reason to think of the VT game as anything but an aberration that is extremely unlikely to recur.

In order to believe that the UNC yards per play statistics are a meaningful representation of who they are as an offense, you must believe that 48 teams are stronger offensively than Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood, Ryan Switzer and company, including the likes of Hawaii, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois. Don’t bet on it.

And what about the indisputable weakness of the Tar Heel run defense? Well, there’s reason to believe that Miami is not the best team to take advantage of that. Say what you will about the Tar Heel front seven, but they’ve been fed to the wolves, having to deal with some of the best backs in the country: Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and James Conner. Miami has a respectable backfield, but no one on the roster you’d trade for any of those guys.

Here again, their statistic (five yards per rush attempt) is belied by the run defenses they’ve faced. Against FSU, they picked up just 2.2 yards per attempt. FSU is among the worst run defenses in the country, ranking #99; the other FBS run defenses they’ve faced rate 55th (App State), 67th (GT), and 118 (FAU). In that company, UNC’s #79 ranking doesn’t look especially awful.

One other consideration: UNC’s run defense last year wasn’t any great shakes, either, but they held largely the same Miami personnel to 3.1 yards per carry and 99 yards total in a 59-21 romp in Kenan last year. Miami probably can’t run the ball well enough to beat the Tar Heels on the ground alone.

Which brings us to injuries. Brad Kaaya took a vicious hit to the head last weekend that resulted in a lost tooth. He’s also dealing with shoulder issues. His availability for the game this week is in question, though he’s most recently been tagged as probable. Stud wide receiver Stacy Coley will play with an MCL injury that is likely to limit him. In general, Miami has been unusually unlucky with personnel losses to injury and off-field issues.

In just the last two weeks, they’ve had the following: DB Jamal Carter (suspended for the 1st Half), WR Sam Bruce (kicked off the team), OT Sunny Odogwu (out/ankle), DL Gerald Willis (knee/doubtful), DL Chad Thomas (hand/probable), LB Shaquille Quarterman (shoulder/probable), and of course the aforementioned Kaaya and Coley. Those come on top of no fewer than six other Miami players who have either been dismissed, transferred, or have suffered a season-ending injury.

They’re not playing with a full deck. Sure, the Tar heels have injuries, too (the most important of which may be the uncertain status of LG Caleb Peterson), but they’re not on the same scale.

If the UNC offense can return to form, and there’s every reason to expect it to. Miami will need to do one of two things: keep Trubisky on the bench by running the football, or keep up with the Tar Heels score-for-score. In what amounts to an elimination game for a shot at the Coastal after a frustrating loss, look for the offense to pull out all the stops to make this a track meet. If the Tar Heel offense can make that the theme of the game, Miami will be hard pressed to keep up, and UNC can get back to rooting for every ACC opponent Virginia Tech encounters.