Several times in the days and weeks leading into it, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora described his team’s season-opener against Georgia as a “measuring stick” game – the kind that would tell the Tar Heels where they stood, or how far they have to go.
The answer, now, after UNC’s 33-24 loss against the Bulldogs on Saturday night: Fedora and his program are still a ways away from where he’s trying to lead it. And that’s especially true defensively.
In the context of that one particular game on Saturday night, UNC had its chances. It’s arguable, even, the Tar Heels should have won. They led 24-14 midway through the third quarter. And if not for repeated mental gaffes – penalties, mostly – maybe UNC pulls it out.
That reality might be a testament to a coaching staff that has received criticism about the offensive play-calling. Because another reality is this: The Tar Heels entered the Georgia Dome on Saturday at a significant talent disadvantage, yet they still kept it close and led by 10 in the third quarter.
Nowhere was the talent gap wider between UNC and Georgia than on defense. That was evident in how the Bulldogs stymied UNC’s offense, which gained a modest 315 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per play – its worst per-play output since the Tar Heels’ 2014 loss against N.C. State.
On the other side, UNC’s defensive talent deficiency was evident in how it failed, again, to stop a strong running team from generally doing what it wanted. Georgia ran for 289 yards, 222 of those coming from Nick Chubb, who put the game away with a late 55-yard touchdown run.
The failure to stop, or even slow down, the run is nothing new for UNC. That’s why it entered the season surrounded by questions about its ability to do just that. The Tar Heels faltered against the run last season, and especially at the end of last season against Clemson and Baylor.
In its past three games, all against strong rushing offenses, UNC simply hasn’t matched up defensively. In those three games (Clemson in the ACC Championship game, Baylor in the bowl game, Georgia on Saturday night), UNC allowed 1,253 yards rushing and an average of 6.5 yards per carry.
To put that rushing total in perspective, UNC during its past three games has allowed more rushing yards than four teams (Boston College, Alabama, Akron and Wisconsin) allowed all of last season. There was hope entering this season that the Tar Heels had “fixed” their rushing defense.
But the only solution there is probably better health and, most important, time and better recruiting. UNC on Saturday was without Dajuan Drennon, one of its starting defensive ends who has been hurt. Jalen Dalton, the team’s most talented (by recruiting rankings) defensive lineman wasn’t at full strength.
Even if UNC had been fully healthy on Saturday, though, the defensive talent disparity between the Tar Heels and Bulldogs would have been evident. Here’s a look at how each defensive starter for both teams on Saturday night was evaluated before arriving in college:
DT Trenton Thompson – 5 star prospect
DE Daquan Hawkins – 3 star
SLB Lorenzo Carter – 5 star
JACK Davin Bellamy – 4 star
MLB Natrez Patrick – 4 star
WLB Roquan Smith – 4 star
LCB Malkom Parrish – 4 star
RCB Juwan Birscoe – 3 star
LS Dominick Sanders – 3 star
RS Aaron Davis – n/a
STAR Maurice Smith – 4 star
Two 5-star players
Five 4-star players
Three 3-star players
DE Malik Carney – 3 star
DE Mikey Bart – 3 star
DT Nazair Jones – 3 star
DT Jeremiah Clarke – 3 star
WLB Cole Holcomb – n/a
MLB Andre Smith – 3 star
SLB Cayson Collins – 3 star
CB M.J. Stewart – 3 star
CB Des Lawrence – 3 star
FS Dominque Green – n/a
SS Donnie Miles – 3 star
Zero 5-star players
Zero 4-star players
Nine 3-star players
Now, naturally, that doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s only a list of starting players, and says nothing about Georgia’s depth (which is better) and UNC’s injuries. And recruiting rankings aren’t the end all, be all, anyway.
Yet they provide a good, baseline indication of a team’s talent. Defensively, at least, UNC was significantly outmatched on Saturday. Georgia, with so much defensive speed and strength, limited UNC’s offense in a way that no team did last season. And UNC, limited defensively in more ways than one, had no answer for Chubb.
And UNC still had its chances, and still had that 24-14 lead in the third quarter.