As North Carolina watched its second-half lead slip away against archival Duke Wednesday night, the possibility of a March Madness-less basketball season in Chapel Hill began to set in. All of a sudden, with a basketball team lingering on the fringe of bracket projections, the Tar Heels athletic department (and its fans) find themselves in a rare predicament: intrigued by spring football.
And why not?
With Larry Fedora implementing a dynamic offense last season — a far cry from the offensive production under previous coaching regimes — the Tar Heels brought a level of refreshing excitement to Chapel Hill last fall, despite being ineligible for postseason play following the school’s first major NCAA infractions since 1961.
Fedora, who has compiled a 42-23 career record at Southern Miss and UNC, doesn’t seem to take notice. The energetic headman boldly (and perhaps disingenuously) proclaimed his team ACC Coastal Champs during the offseason — even commemorating it with a school-produced graphic — after posting a 5-3 league record. ACC policy on such matters be damned.
All posturing aside, there’s reason to buy into the vision Fedora and his staff have in mind for North Carolina’s program, especially on the offensive side. The ACC remains the little brother of BCS automatic qualifying conferences, but, in the process of rebuilding a program recovering from the failures and subsequent mishandling of the Butch Davis era, North Carolina could have a chance to make waves in 2013.
The Red Bull-fueled offense that has its sights set on revitalizing Tar Heels football unsurprisingly revolves around speed, not only in individual ability but in team concept. It showed last season. North Carolina ran 898 offensive plays in 2012, an average of 85.2 plays more than each of the previous five seasons under Davis and 2011 interim head coach Everett Withers, who now serves as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
That’s the serious uptick in offensive tempo Fedora promised in his introductory news conference, the same one where he promised to walk straight up to the adversity facing the program and choke it.
But speed does not equate to an elite offense in and of itself.
So in addition to playing at a faster pace, the Tar Heels offense became more efficient last season. In spite of running more plays than any of the previous five seasons, UNC cut down on interceptions (seven), turnovers (18), sacks allowed (11) and produced, on average, more than one more yard per play.
The result: the team averaged 40.6 points per game after failing to surpass the 30-point mark under Davis or Withers.
By keeping opposing defenses on the field — and tired defenses at that — North Carolina, led by quarterback Bryn Renner and explosive running back Giovani Bernard, was able to finish drives at its highest rate of the past decade. Here’s a breakdown of Fedora’s 2012 offense compared to the previous five seasons in terms of points scored per drive:
A primary factor behind the Tar Heels’ increased scoring efficiency was its ball security, notably Renner’s, who nearly cut his interceptions in half despite hoisting 72 more passes his junior season.
As a team, North Carolina turned the ball over on just 9.3 percent of its possessions. In fact, among teams that scored 2.8 or more points per possession last season, only national champion Alabama, Kansas State, Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State and West Virginia turned the ball over at a lower percentage — two of those programs went to BCS bowls.
That’s elite offensive company.
So, how can North Carolina improve on those numbers?
Fedora is losing his most dynamic weapon in Bernard, who (wisely) entered the NFL Draft instead of returning for his senior season, and the 15 scholarship deductions as a result of the NCAA infractions could begin to take their toll. Don’t overlook the losses along one of the nation’s most talented offensive lines, either.
But with Renner and his teammates entering his second spring in the uptempo offense, perhaps Fedora’s principles have had some time to sink in. These transitions require a necessary adjustment period.
Fifty-seven FBS programs eclipsed the 900-play barrier last season — Fedora undoubtedly wants to join that list soon. Bernard will not be easy to replace, but putting a greater workload on the shoulders of a senior quarterback who’s shown NFL potential in his two seasons as a starter is not too scary a launching point for the spring, especially in a conference where he could challenge Clemson’s Tajh Boyd for top QB honors.
With its beloved basketball program struggling, it’s worth noting that UNC’s retention of its head coach — Fedora was rumored to be linked to coaching searches at Tennessee and a potential opening at Oklahoma State this offseason — was the best news Tar Heel fans received this academic year.
Spring practice is fast approaching. Larry Fedora would not have it any other way.
In a there-for-the-taking Coastal Division, the Tar Heels have as good a chance as any to take the divisional crown.