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Defensive struggles have UNC stuck with another lost season

Is this the end for Larry Fedora?

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

If Larry Fedora is heading into this weekend coaching for his job, then Dave Doeren certainly can relate, having been in pretty much the same position two years ago. The similarities between their situations end there. NC State’s win in this game two years back put State into a bowl game, and there was an easy argument to be made that better results lay ahead.

North Carolina is simply looking to salvage a three-win season, which would make it back-to-back three-win years for the program. It’s difficult to find any program momentum under the circumstances, and the Tar Heels rank 94th in S&P+ for the second consecutive season.

Fedora’s had some bad luck with injuries and, more recently, suspensions, but the later in his tenure that a coach endures bad bounces like those, the less sympathy he’s gonna get.

The problems for Fedora and his staff have been consistent and nagging in a number of areas, mainly on the defensive side of the ball. The Heels have rarely gotten much out of that unit during the Fedora era, and this year is no different—the defense ranks 99th in S&P+.

The rushing defense has been horrendous: 109th in efficiency, 122nd in marginal explosiveness, and 100th in stuff rate. The defensive line has actually been good in terms of havoc rate (10th), but the back seven has been a disaster there. Compounding matters, opponents are starting on average at their own 31.5 yard line. That ranks the UNC defense 108th in average field position.

FBS opponents are averaging 5.4 yards per carry and nearly 230 rushing yards per game against this defense. They have scored 21 rushing touchdowns. ACC opponents are picking up nearly 5.7 yards per carry.

The defensive line has done what it can to provide a lifeline in the form of sacks—the Heels rank 10th in standard-down sack rate—but there’s little else to like. If those guys aren’t effective consistently, the Heels tend to sink quickly.

The advanced numbers don’t love Carolina’s offense either, but that group has improved from 83rd in 2017 to 65th in S&P+ this year. With more support from the defense, maybe UNC has a few more wins and Fedora isn’t sweating quite so much.

As it is, things look bleak all around. And when the recruiting slips in kind with results on the field—UNC’s class ranks 62nd in the 247 Composite—that usually means the end is near for a coaching staff. An upset win this weekend probably won’t mean much for the long-term growth of the program.

The Tar Heels’ poor defense will probably be the end of them on Saturday, and whenever Fedora gets canned, you can probably place that outcome at the feet of the defense, too.