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Meet UNC, as soft defensively, and dangerous offensively, as usual

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Mack Brown will never be mistaken for a great football coach, but he has always been a great recruiter, and that helped him build big breakthrough years at UNC his first time around and then later at Texas.

It seemed plausible if not exactly guaranteed that one of those breakthroughs might happen in Chapel Hill this time around, if only because Brown has had two of the best quarterbacks (the best two?) in program history to work with. This year in particular seemed like the time for it, as the blue chip prospects Brown recruited so easily early on are now upperclassmen, and Drake Maye was going to build off his first year as a starter.

Maye has been very good and will be very rich very soon, and UNC has done well to put excellent skill talent around him; but then, UNC’s problems, across multiple head coaching tenures, have rarely been on that side of the ball.

The Tar Heels’ defense started the season with a bang, recording nine sacks in the opener against South Carolina after collecting a grand total of 17 in 2022, suggesting that perhaps that unit was ready to turn a corner—and if so, maybe this was that special season. We know better now.

That wasn’t an arrival so much as an indictment of whatever it is that South Carolina has going on over there, and the Tar Heels’ defense, while improved, hasn’t been good enough to level up the program.

UNC has allowed 5.7 yards per play in league games, giving up at least 31 points in its last five against FBS opponents. Aside from those nine sacks week one, and the five UNC recorded against Campbell, it has 12 across the other nine games.

The rush defense really has been appalling: 228 surrendered to UVA, 348 (!) to Georgia Tech, 179 to Duke, 247 to Clemson. Whatever Mack’s strengths, building and motivating a defense apparently is not among them.

The funny thing about it, too, is that the universe is cooperating. UNC is +10 in turnover margin, which ranks seventh nationally, and the Tar Heels have avoided the injury bug. Two key components to a Special Season there and handled, and the defense still managed to fumble the opportunity.

The offense remains lethal, and all the more so for Omarion Hampton’s breakout: he is tied for first among FBS players in rushing yardage with 1,414, and the Heels are averaging 195 yards rushing on 4.9 per carry in league games. The elite rushing attack, plus, you know, Drake Maye, has made UNC the toughest team in the country to stop on third down—they’ve converted 80 out of 161 opportunities on the year. (Though that does dip to 44% in league games.)

Saturday night can go a lot of different ways, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be interesting regardless.