Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
To put the disrespect for North Carolina's offense this offseason into perspective, start with the defense. Carolina gets back nine starters from a unit that led the ACC and finished sixth nationally last year in total defense. Six of that number landed on the All-ACC team, and five of that group are being sized up as potential first-round draft picks next April. In his individual rankings, stat-crunching preseason guru Phil Steele lists a Tar Heel as the nation's No. 1 defensive end (Robert Quinn), No. 1 defensive tackle (Marvin Austin), No. 1 inside linebacker (Quan Sturdivant), No. 1 outside linebacker (Bruce Carter), No. 2 free safety (Deunta Williams) and No. 4 and No. 13 cornerbacks (Kendric Burney and Charles Brown).
If that even remotely resembles reality, it's at least as dominant a collection of individual talent as last year's top three defenses, Alabama, Florida and Texas, fielded en route to undefeated regular seasons. Scouts and stats agree: On paper, North Carolina is the bet-the-house defense. For once, even Bud Foster's perennially overachieving lunchpail crew at Virginia Tech doesn't come that close.
Yet even as infatuated a pundit as Steele can't bring himself to project Carolina higher than a tie for second place in a crowded Coastal Division. The other magazines are equally reluctant. The reason, obviously: UNC's offense is too much dead weight for any defense, even the best in the country, to drag to a conference championship. And that's the case even with 10 starters back and a senior quarterback with 31 career starts under his belt.
Not that the D didn't do a good bit of dragging last year. Consider that the average I-A/FBS offense averaged roughly 380 yards per game (the number is about the same in the ACC). Six of North Carolina's eight wins in '09 came in games in which it was held below 330 total yards – at least 50 below the national average, usually more – with the defense scoring multiple touchdowns in three of them. Of the 64 points UNC scored in back-to-back November wins over Miami and Boston College, the defense was directly responsible for 28 on interception and fumble returns, and set up another 10 points at B.C. with a pair of late interceptions that set the offense up for easy scores deep in Eagle territory.
That's pretty much the story when things went right. It was the defense that shut down UConn and provided the winning margin with a late safety that brought the final to 12-10. It was the defense that kept Duke out of the end zone in a 19-6 win, while the Tar Heel offense took three-and-a-half quarters to cross the line itself. And it was the defense that forced a fumble to set up the season-saving field goal to beat Virginia Tech – which wouldn't have been necessary if the offense hadn't turned it over to the Hokies for an easy go-ahead touchdown from the UNC five-yard line a few minutes earlier:
The offense rarely disappeared for an entire game (the abysmal early losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia are exceptions), but it couldn't be counted on to have the defense's back on the rare occasions things started to get out of hand on the other side. When Georgia Tech's triple option attack ate up the vaunted UNC front seven for more than 300 yards rushing, it was 17-0 and all but hopeless by the time Carolina finally got on the board in the fourth quarter. Fast starts against Florida State and N.C. State turned into disappearing acts as the 'Noles and Wolfpack both rallied from double-digit holes in the second half. The defense bailed itself out at times (see the win over Miami), but with no expectation of a response from the offense, the margin for error was nil.
I argued Monday that a first-rate defense was good enough to win this conference in the very recent past – Wake Forest took the conference championship in 2006 with the nation's 96th-ranked total offense, and Virginia Tech won it two years in a row with attacks that ranked 100th and 103rd, respectively, in 2007-08. (Wake Forest wasn't even all that good on defense in 2006.) That was possible because a majority of the conference was just as bad. That's not true anymore, especially in the Coastal Division: Between Georgia Tech's lethal option game, Miami's bombs-away passing philosophy, Virginia Tech's power running/play-action game and balanced assaults from across the divisional divide by Florida State and Clemson, even a defense as hyped as North Carolina's is going to find itself in a few holes.
This is a brief window: The caché of defensive talent takes its wares to the NFL at the end of the year, and 2011 is full-scale rebuilding mode pretty much regardless of this year's results. The difference between an ACC championship and another bowl game named for an automotive repair chain will be largely in how well the offense avoids the turnovers, lulls and missed opportunities that decide close games. But that's the case for all contenders. For Carolina, specifically, ultra-conservative coordinator John Shoop has to find some semblance of firepower (receiver Greg Little is a good place to start) worth somewhere in the neighborhood of an extra touchdown per game to his maligned "West Coast" scheme. You'll be able to tell if they got it around Thanksgiving or so, by whether the basketball crowd is still booing T.J. Yates.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.