Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

It's behind a pay wall, so odds are you can't read it, but the Worldwide Leader's top-25 countdown is at No. 21, North Carolina, with the somewhat provocative suggestion that Butch Davis has already brought the Heels "into the realm of a potential powerhouse" heading into Year Three A.B. ("After John Bunting").

The narrative probably goes something like this: Davis has cast off the Bunting-era chafe with two top-20 recruiting hauls in the last three years, an infusion that lived up to the "youth movement" hype by doubling its win total from four in '07 to eight last year and returns in the neighborhood of 17 now-seasoned starters. UNC spent a good part of last October and November in the polls and generally figures to open this fall as a fringe top-20 team -- a pretty substantial leap for a program that averaged just shy of four wins in Bunting's last five years.

Look closely at Carolina's five 2008 losses, too, and they look even more like a team on the brink of a legitimate breakthrough. Aside from the weird collapse against streaking N.C. State in late November, four losses by a combined nine points -- in each of which UNC had a better game on a per-play basis -- is serious bait for seekers of the elusive darkhorse:

At least three of those games, and possibly all of them, could have gone the Tar Heels' way with better ball security. But the blocking and tackling, the athletes, on a down-by-down basis, they seemed to be there.

However: If you're going to take account of margins separating respectability from possible greatness -- especially when it comes to the notoriously fickle fate that usually accompanies outlying turnover margins -- you have to ask yourself this question, too: What kind of team manages to go 8-5 while being outgained by 64 yards per game? For some context on that number, UNC played 10 teams last year that finished with winning records. All but one of them, Maryland, averaged more yards per game than it allowed, and the Terps' deficit (14 yards per game) was nowhere near the Tar Heels'. The only two teams in the ACC that missed bowl games, Duke and Virginia, both stacked up better than UNC in terms of yards gained vs. yards allowed. Minus-64 yards per game is the mark of a bad team.

So: Since when does "outgained by the widest margin in the conference" add up to "steadily moving forward"? Once again, when one number tells the story more completely than any other:

It is a positive sign that Carolina stacks up much better in per-capita terms (yards per play) than in total yards. It is not so positive that it apparently required such generosity to eke out wins over very middling outfits from Miami and Notre Dame, or that, minus the giveaway/takeaway advantage, the Heels weren't that much better than McNeese State and Duke, which both had leads well into the third quarter.

As Athlon points out, last year was the first year the Tar Heels finished with a positive turnover margin since 1999; what if that trend reverts to the norm this time around? More records like the Heels have put up since 1999?

Not that Carolina doesn't have a real shot at knocking off Virginia Tech and/or the Coastal Division's other young up-and-comer, Miami, en route to a really special year. But short of a miraculous, Cincinnati-like run to the BCS, the trajectory of this program might be better measured in how well it's able to increase its margin of error -- i.e. overcome turnovers and other mistakes -- by actually outplaying people on a down-to-down basis, rather than in the final record.

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