North Carolina needs more than all-world D to win ACC; more Mailbag
Carolina D is loaded with NFL talent, but offensive turnovers have limited Heels
Big 12 has placed teams in five of past seven title games, but remains vulnerable
Plus: Florida's re-tooled D, Illinois' mind-boggling decision, new bowl rules, more
Imagine your girlfriend dumping you, then going on to marry the one person you hate most in the world. I suspect that's what this past winter felt like for North Carolina fans, who endured their storied basketball team missing the NCAA tournament while archrival Duke rose up and won the whole thing.
Relief may be on its way soon enough, Tar Heels fans, though from an unfamiliar place: your football team.
I'm a rare Tar Heels fan who cares much more about football than basketball, but even I was a bit surprised to see that SI.com's Tony Pauline ranked five UNC defensive starters (defensive end Robert Quinn, linebacker Bruce Carter, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney) among his top 40 NFL prospects for 2011. Obviously the problem in Chapel Hill has been on the offensive side of the ball, but with that much talent, how can UNC not emerge from the ludicrously deep, yet disappointingly mediocre ACC?
While way-early draft projections don't always prove accurate (see Snead, Jevan), the fact that so many UNC defenders are so highly regarded speaks to how much Butch Davis has upgraded the talent level in his three-plus years in Chapel Hill. (Note that fifth-year seniors Carter and Burney predate Davis' tenure.) We've seen some pretty star-studded defenses in recent years at the usual suspects like USC, LSU, Florida and Ohio State ... but North Carolina? The unit Davis has assembled is pretty remarkable, but not surprising to anyone who watched the way he recruited and built his program at Miami. He's following the same blueprint.
There's one big difference this time, though: Davis hasn't had nearly as much success on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback T.J. Yates, at least to this point, has been no Ken Dorsey. UNC managed to lose four conference games last season despite boasting the nation's sixth-ranked defense. One big reason: turnovers. The Heels coughed it up 27 times, including 15 interceptions from Yates, whom UNC couldn't protect and who got absolutely no support from the running game. Injuries and youth on offense didn't help, and that theme continued this spring, with more injuries plaguing the offensive line.
While UNC has improved from 3-9 the year before Davis arrived to 8-5 the past two years, Tar Heels fans would be justified in expecting Davis -- with his $2 million-plus salary -- to produce an ACC title contender in this, his fourth season. There are certain years when it feels like a team has a unique window of opportunity to do something special, and with the makings of an all-world defense, this might be it for UNC. But I'm having a hard time fully jumping on the Heels' bandwagon when they've shown such little sign of producing any offensive explosion. I suppose they could follow the Virginia Tech blueprint; the Hokies' won the league in 2007 and '08 with highly suspect offenses. But league offenses have improved quite a bit since then, including in Blacksburg, and UNC will face games where it's got to move the ball, too. Get on that, guys.
I've been "somewhat" following the expansion talk. My question is: Why is the Big 12 conference the choice to be picked apart? What makes the Big 12 so vulnerable?
It speaks to just how little expansion has to do with actual on-field results. The Big 12 has placed teams in five of the past seven BCS championship games and just produced five of the top six picks in last month's NFL draft. But for all its teams' on-field success, behind the scenes, the conference is a bit like a dysfunctional family.
The old-guard Big 8 schools like Nebraska resent Texas for coming in and stealing their thunder. Cash cows Texas and Oklahoma resent the fact that Iowa State, Kansas State, et. al., contribute such little value to the league's television contracts (which, at about $80 million per year, garner less than half that of the SEC's new package). And the smaller schools resent the fact that Texas and Oklahoma get larger slices of the pie in the conference's uneven revenue distribution model. (Unlike in the Big Ten, where all revenue is shared equally, the Big 12 teams that appear on TV more often get bigger payouts.)
The primary reason you're hearing Nebraska and Missouri come up so frequently in Big Ten speculation is because they'd both stand to make significantly more money than they do in the Big 12. But the biggest reason they'd actually consider leaving is because the Big Ten is simply more stable.
Everyone is focused on the Gators replacing Tim Tebow. I am more interested in how Florida will replace all the holes on defense. Is this going to be another defense learning its way through the season like in 2007?
You are a smart man, Eric. While Tebow was unquestionably the face of Florida football the past four years, one could argue the team's true MVP was defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. He's gone, and so are the majority of his starters from the past two seasons. Florida's offense will be fine as long as Urban Meyer is on the sideline and quarterback John Brantley stays healthy. Meyer has a long track record of grooming his offense to his current quarterback's abilities, and he's got a heck of an offensive line and running back stable at his disposal. With the quarterback no longer at the center of the rushing attack, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combine for 2,000 yards.
On the other hand, I have no idea what to expect from the defense. That uncertainty starts first and foremost with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. He's spent his entire career as a defensive backs coach, first in college (Wake Forest, Syracuse, Michigan), then the NFL (Seahawks, Cardinals). He could well become another star like Strong, but as of now he's never orchestrated a defense. All we know is he's moving the Gators to more of a 3-4 scheme.
Personnel-wise, though, Florida's in much better shape than it was in '07. That defense had to rely almost entirely on freshmen and sophomores; this defense still has a bunch of proven veterans (safeties Ahmad Black and Will Hill, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Justin Trattou, linebacker A.J. Jones). I would certainly expect a drop-off, but not nearly as much as that 9-4 season. I fully expect to see the Gators back in Atlanta come December, possibly for Florida-Alabama III.
Stewart, do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- make any changes to the Mailbag. There are still a few of us out here who like reading a "normal" column. The Web has become overrun with podcasts and blogs. I enjoy the old school format of the Mailbag -- much like a classic car. Keep up the good work!
I swear I wasn't fishing for compliments with last week's season intro about the Mailbag being an Internet dinosaur, but it did elicit a whole lot of e-mails like this one -- so thank you, everyone. Don't worry, no Big Ten-style overhaul is in the works. The Mailbag has done fine all these years without Rutgers or Syracuse.
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