Larry Fedora’s demise at UNC was the result of some bad injury luck, an inability to come through in close games, and lacking quarterback play. That led to poor win-loss records, with a silver lining that the Tar Heels’ talent was better than those records implied. They just needed a little course correction on the more random aspects of the last couple years.
So Mack Brown didn’t step into a terrible situation—there was a good chance Carolina would be improved in 2019 no matter who was doing the coaching. Mack hasn’t gotten the Heels over their close-game problems, but even so they’ve improved enough in general to take advantage of a down year across the ACC and put themselves in position to go bowling.
Brown’s biggest breakthrough was solving the quarterback situation: Sam Howell is a huge upgrade in that spot, and not surprisingly he’s energized the passing game. Carolina can look back at a lot of missed opportunities from this season but not be bothered too much because the Heels know they have a major building block under center. That’s a huge win for a new coaching staff, and year one is a grace period anyway.
Howell has 32 touchdown passes and six interceptions this season—he has more than doubled UNC’s passing TD number from 2018 all by himself, while halving the team’s INT total. He’s also averaging 8.3 yards per attempt, which is a whole lot better than the 6.6 YPA that Carolina QBs averaged the season prior.
Howell essentially is the rebuild on the offensive side, because while that passing game is much better, the Heels have seen their success decline on the ground. Yards per carry has dipped from 5.3 to 4.5, and the Heels went from 19 rushing touchdowns last year to nine in 2019. Howell has had a hand in more than three-quarters of the team’s TDs.
Carolina’s offense comes into the weekend ranked 37th in SP+, up 21 spots from where it finished last season. By ACC standards, that’s quite good. And with quarterback play generally lacking across the league, the Heels are well positioned in the near term. Yeah, I know, total bummer.
UNC’s defense has made strides of its own as well—while the offense has gone from mediocre to good, the defense has improved from bad to mediocre. Howell’s presence opens the door for some big seasons, but he’s going to need that defense to keep getting better, and there you can find easy reason for skepticism.
But that may be of little issue for this week, since NC State’s offense has a knack for making any given defense look effective. This is where we’re supposed to find the optimism about this matchup—an opportunity against an unremarkable opposing defense—but if anything it’s easier to assume another letdown. We have seen enough to know we’ve seen too much, and it’s all bad.
We will cling to whatever irrational hope we can scrounge together in the lead-up to kickoff on Saturday, but just as NC State has defined its dominance in this series of late with superior quarterback play, UNC might well put a different spin on the same plot. Nobody’s going to be surprised if that happens.