For many college football teams, North Carolina included, the regular season is already one-third of the way over. Most teams have played four games and, by now, have offered enough evidence to make reasonable projections about where they’re headed.
For the Tar Heels, the future looks more troubling than the recent past. They have lost three of their first four games. They are losing players to injury at an alarming rate. And two games that appeared among the most manageable on the schedule – against California, to start the season, and against Duke, last weekend – are in the past. UNC lost both, at home, and has now lost six consecutive games against major conference opponents.
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It becomes no easier. At least not for another two weeks or so.
UNC plays on Saturday at Georgia Tech, where it has won once in the past 20 years (though that victory came during the Tar Heels’ most recent trip to Bobby Dodd Stadium, in 2015). And then UNC returns home for a game against Notre Dame, a game that is quickly losing its luster, and its place as a sort of showcase opportunity for the Tar Heels in coach Larry Fedora’s sixth season.
It might be too much to suggest that UNC finds itself at a crossroads. Such a point, after all, could have arrived a game and a few key injuries ago. Even so, there’s still a lot of season remaining, which might not necessarily be a positive for the beleaguered Tar Heels. With eight games left in the regular season, these are their most important questions:
1. Can UNC salvage its season?
To answer this question, one must first define “salvage.” What does that mean, exactly? By now, after losing against Cal and against Duke – two games that most reasonable optimists placed in the win column before the season began – salvaging the season probably means becoming bowl eligible.
And that means reaching six wins. To reach six victories, the Tar Heels need to win five of their remaining eight games, which are against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Western Carolina and N.C. State.
Are there five wins there for UNC? If they’re there, they’re difficult to see. The Western Carolina game appears to be the only sure-thing victory, and at the rate UNC is losing players it’s difficult to characterize anything as a “sure thing.” Virginia all of a sudden looks somewhat formidable after its road victory at Boise State.
Pittsburgh isn’t very good, but that game is on the road after two of UNC’s most difficult games – at Virginia Tech and against Miami – and who knows what kind of mental state the Tar Heels will bring to Pitt. And none of this analysis says much of UNC’s injury situation. Which brings us to …
2. What is going on with UNC’s injuries, and how much worse, or better, can it get?
Fedora was asked on Monday during his weekly news conference whether he’d ever experienced the kind of poor injury luck that has befallen his team. His response: “No.” And then he said it again. And again. He said the word “no” six times, for emphasis: “No, no, no, no, no, no.”
So, no, Fedora has never been through anything like this. That’s especially discomforting given the challenge he would have faced even with a healthy team. Entering the season, Fedora said he’d never encountered the kind of rebuilding project on offense that awaited him.
And now three of his best receivers (Austin Proehl, Thomas Jackson and Rontavius Groves) are hurt, with Jackson definitely out for the season and Groves and Proehl potentially out for the season. A starting offensive lineman, William Sweet, is out for the season, and another Tommy Hatton, hasn’t practiced or played since suffering a concussion early in the season.
Other offensive linemen have been hurt, making that position a mishmash group of rotating recovering players. UNC lost one player for the season against Louisville (middle linebacker Andre Smith), two more at Old Dominion (Jackson and Sweet) and possibly three more (Proehl, Groves and defensive lineman Tyler Powell) against Duke on Saturday.
And, beyond that, others – defensive tackle Jalen Dalton, freshman receiver Dazz Newsome, offensive tackle Bentley Spain, to name just three – have endured more minor injuries that have forced them to miss time. And so what is exactly is going on here? Is it simply bad luck? A result of some deficiency in the strength and conditioning program?
Is it the shoes and the gear UNC is wearing in its first season using Jordan Brand?
“I get all kinds of suggestions,” Fedora said. “And I appreciate everybody’s (concern) because we’re searching. But we’re checking everything out. Everything, the way we do things in the offseason, year round, the way we don’t do things year round, everything. I mean, we’re looking at everything. But it’s not like this has been happening every year. … But no, I do not think it’s the shoes.”
What about the field? UNC is practicing inside of Kenan Stadium this season while the construction on its indoor practice facility takes up its usual practice space. And so the turf has been replaced twice now, once before the season-opener against Cal and then again before UNC played against Duke.
Fedora, though, sees no correlation there, either. He says the grass has held up fine.
“There’s nothing to do with that,” he said. “You don’t see any turf tearing up, you don’t see our guys sliding around. Their footing is great out there. That’s really been unbelievable to me, that it’s been that good.”
It has been equally unbelievable, too, that the Tar Heels’ injury misfortune has been this bad. Fedora wasn’t prepared to say whether any more players endured season-ending injuries against Duke, but it’s a near certainty that at least one, and probably two, were indeed lost for the season.
Which leads us to …
3. At what point do Fedora and Co. get a little weird and experimental?
When Baylor defeated UNC in a 2015 bowl game, the Bears essentially had no quarterbacks. They improvised, used a wildcat formation that allowed several players the chance to run out of the shotgun and they wound up running for more yards (645) than any team had ever run for in any bowl, ever.
UNC’s personnel situation is similarly shaky now. The Tar Heels quarterbacks are fine, at least, and Chazz Surratt and Brandon Harris have remained healthy. But UNC is running out of bodies at receiver, which, arguably, was the thinnest position entering the season even before the injuries.
It is unlikely that the Tar Heels can run their usual offense given the lack of depth on the offensive line and at receiver, where several inexperienced players – or those who haven’t found their way off the sideline for several seasons now – would be asked to play more prominent roles, ones beyond their ability. Against Duke, for instance, UNC late in that game used players at receiving positions that they’d never played before.
And so the Tar Heels have two options, it seems: They can force square pegs into round holes, and attempt to find success with players in traditional positions they’ve never played before (and haven’t played, likely, for good reason). Or they can experiment, which, in fairness, would also likely require some players to move to new positions.
Fedora on Monday touched on the possibility that he uses this situation as a chance to become uniquely creative. What Baylor did to his team in December 2015 came to mind.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, referencing how Baylor used its available pieces in creative ways to catch UNC off guard. “There are things that you can come up with. For us, we’re not in a quarterback situation. But … the thing is the guys you’re going to have on the field, try to put them in the best position possible. Whether that means we’re going to be moving people around, which we’ve already been doing.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of it.”
The question within this question is how much Fedora is willing to change. Like many coaches, he’s a staunch believer in his system. Now his team’s dire injury situation will test his adaptability, and willingness to experiment, like it’s never been tested.