Team: North Carolina Tar Heels
W-L: 8-4 (5-3)
Top Offensive Performer: Giovani Bernard, RB
Top Defensive Performer: Kevin Reddick, LB
After a very encouraging 2011 season, 2012 was supposed to be the year that UNC put it all together and finally won the Coastal division. And technically, they did. But due to a postseason ban, the school was not allowed to play for the ACC title, nor win the Coastal division. When looking at head coach Larry Fedora’s first year on the job though, it’s tough to argue that the Heels’ season was anything but a success — and another step toward the team’s goal of playing for a league championship.
When Fedora showed up at Chapel Hill, there appeared to be trepidation surrounding his spread offense. Quarterback Bryn Renner had always played in a pro-style attack, while running back Giovani Bernard was unsure how he’d continue to play a key role for an offense that appeared to be moving away from the running game. As evidenced by the team’s 14th-ranked offense this year, everything actually turned out just fine. Renner was a natural for the spread, and grew my leaps and bounds in comparison to his sophomore campaign. While attempting 72 more passes than 2011 (in one less game), the now-junior only saw a slight dip in accuracy, while throwing for more TDs (28 versus 26) with less sacks and interceptions. And Bernard actually thrived as both part of the passing game, and as a result of its importance in the offense. As a receiving option out of the backfield, Bernard caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five scores (in just 10 games). Plus, because of the spread’s emphasis on the passing game, the slashing sophomore back also saw more holes between the tackles as defenses feared Renner throwing the ball. The result? A campaign that should’ve gotten more Heisman buzz, as Bernard racked up another 1,228 yards on the ground with 12 TDs — again, in 10 games and on 55 less carries compared to last season. Not to be completely outdone, backup (and 2013 starter) A.J. Blue even got in on the act, rushing his way to 433 yards and nine scores on top of that. Overall, the UNC offense averaged 92 yards per game more than they did last year; a phenomenal jump in just one season.
If you wanted to point to a concern for UNC, it’s also easy to head straight for the defensive side of the ball. Discounting the two games they played against FCS opponent Elon and FBS underling Idaho (both shutouts), the Tar Heels allowed nearly 31 points per game. In their final five games, four opponents scored 33 points or more, including an embarrassing 68 points by Georgia Tech in a loss on November 10. Carolina’s high-risk high-reward 4-2-5 failed to pay dividends in the passing game in terms of yardage (83rd in the country, allowing 246.9 passing yards per game), but at the same time, the scoring results painted a different picture. Despite allowing that many yards, UNC only let up 15 passing touchdowns, and came down with 16 interceptions. Of course, the run defense was more of the same Jekyll/Hyde output. Despite giving up 20 scores on the ground, they ranked 41st nationally in average rushing yards allowed per game. Now, this is certainly a young group, and they’ll take some time to grow into the new system (especially as the defense’s two best players — Kevin Reddick and Sylvester Williams — depart). But for right now, there’s a lot more wrong than right with this defense, and it’s what could ultimately hold them back next year, too.
With eight wins and what would’ve been a division title had it not been for the bowl ban, the Larry Fedora era does appear to be off to a roaring start. And it’s likely just the beginning of the team’s radical transformation. Fedora is still working with a roster of players largely recruited by Butch Davis and his staff, and many fail to fit the qualifications for the spread or the 4-2-5. And that’s not to write off his ability to succeed, either (or give him an excuse if he fails to succeed). This is a team and program on the rise, and despite losing key leadership on both sides of the ball, the Tar Heels are well-equipped to keep growing into the new system.