When North Carolina’s football team fights in its own weight class, it usually wins.
The big question for the Tar Heels over the next four games, starting with Saturday’s road trip to East Carolina: How many times will they fight in their own weight class?
If you break down the ACC teams, since the start of the 2009 season, by their overall records against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents who had three or fewer wins, four to six wins, seven to nine wins and 10-plus wins, UNC has done its best work against teams in its win range.
Since the start of the 2009 season, or the previous five seasons, UNC has averaged 7.6 wins per season. Over that span, when the Tar Heels have faced other like teams, they have gone 16-10. The numbers are even better under Larry Fedora, who is 9-4 (69.2 percent). Or in other words, he’s really good in coin-toss or 50-50 games, a sign of a good coach.
Also a good sign, Fedora has – for the most part – avoided stumbles (at least all of them against out-of-state opponents) with a 5-2 mark against sub-.500 teams (the losses being to a 5-7 Wake Forest team and a 6-7 Duke team in 2012).
The problem for the Tar Heels, but hardly unique to them, is when they have to punch above their weight class. Since ’09, UNC is 2-10 against teams that won 10 or more games. Fedora is 0-4 against that group, with three losses coming last year (South Carolina, East Carolina, Duke). UNC’s next four opponents – ECU, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame – each have the potential to win 10 games this season.
The Tar Heels haven’t been able to break through the double-digit win ceiling since Mack Brown’s last team went 11-1 in 1997. That UNC team lost its only game against a 10-plus win team (Florida State) and beat six teams that finished with a losing record.
There’s nothing wrong with taking care of the business. UNC’s best team (certainly most talented) in the post-Brown era was arguably Butch Davis’ 2009 team and it couldn’t do that.
That season, the Tar Heels beat a 10-3 Virginia Tech team on the road and went 4-1 against other middleweight teams. But that team lost at home to Virginia (3-9) and by one-point to Russell Wilson and a 5-7 N.C. State team on the road.
Duke’s rise under David Cutcliffe can be directly tied to the Blue Devils’ success against teams they are supposed to beat. Since 2009, Cutcliffe is 16-6 against teams that finished below .500. His past two bowl teams, in 2012 and ’13, were 9-0 against that group.
Duke’s issue comes against good to great teams. The Blue Devils are just 7-28 against teams that finished with a winning record, with four wins coming last season when they won a school-record 10 games.
Since ’09, Duke is 0-11 against teams that finish with 10 or more wins. Actually, the Devils haven’t beaten a team in that group since 1989 (a 21-17 home win over Clemson), a span of 29 games.
Then there’s N.C. State. The Wolfpack, in truly the Wolfpack Way, has somehow managed to be different than UNC and Duke. Before last year’s 3-9 dip, N.C. State averaged 7.25 wins from 2009-12. In those four seasons, the Wolfpack went 7-11 against similar teams and 5-8 against teams that finished with four to six wins. Not good.
The Wolfpack excelled, however, against the heavyweights. N.C. State went 5-4 in Tom O’Brien’s final four seasons against teams that finished with 10 or more wins. The Wolfpack is still the last ACC team to beat Florida State (the 12-2 version in 2012) and the last ACC team, besides FSU, to beat Clemson (the 10-4 version in 2011).
Even with an 0-4 mark against the heavyweights last season, only FSU has more wins (six) against that group among the 11 ACC teams than N.C. State.
A couple of other observations from the ACC-wide numbers:
• Virginia Tech does not mess around at or below its pay-grade. The Hokies have averaged 9.2 wins since ’09 and are 39-6 against teams that have won nine or fewer games. When the Hokies have to step up in class (5-10 vs. 10-plus win teams), though, you can see what has been holding them back from truly being considered one of the country’s elite programs.
Along the same lines, FSU didn’t make its breakthrough under Jimbo Fisher until last year when it went 3-0 against 10-plus win teams (Clemson, Duke, Auburn). Fisher was 2-5 against such teams in his first three seasons.
And if you’re waiting for Miami to become “The U” again, it won’t happen until the Canes can beat the heavyweights. The Canes are good against their kind (15-8) but just 1-13 against 10-plus win teams.
• Dabo Swinney has officially killed the concept of “Clemsoning,” and these numbers prove it. The Tigers are 18-1 against teams that finished with a losing record (the lone loss, the tombstone for “Clemsoning” was a 24-21 home loss to a 2-10 Maryland team in 2009).
• The least surprising number in the whole chart? Former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe’s 9-0 record against teams he was supposed to beat (teams that finished with three or fewer wins).