North Carolina

Talkin' Football: James Conner vs. UNC defense a tale of good vs. bad

Each week during college football season, columnist Luke DeCock and our college reporters answer the most important questions of the weekend. Our roundtable discussion begins with a discussion of whether Pitt running back James Conner is the best offensive player in the ACC:

1. Pittsburgh running back James Conner leads the ACC in rushing, and his numbers should only be more impressive after he faces North Carolina on Saturday. Should Conner be getting more attention for ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors?

Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): Conner has run for at least 120 yards in six of the Panthers’ nine games, and in Pitt’s past two games, he has run for 383 yards and six touchdowns. He leads the ACC with 1,342 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, and those numbers are likely to look a lot better after Saturday. It’s unlikely he stays on this pace, but if Conner finishes the season with close to 2,000 yards rushing and more than 20 touchdowns he’ll have made a great argument for offensive player of the year honors.

Luke DeCock: Conner might not be the best offensive player on his own team. If Pittsburgh had more consistent quarterback play, that title might to go sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd. But there’s no denying Conner’s prodigious production, nor any reason to deny him the same kind of attention Boston College’s Andre Williams got last year when he joined Jameis Winston at the Heisman ceremony.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): Conner has been awesome, but let’s wait until this Florida State-Miami game shakes out tonight before we start handing out awards.

FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, while wildly unpopular, has been superb late in the Noles’ best wins (Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Louisville), in spite of his propensity for being terrible in the beginning of those same games.

Miami running back Duke Johnson – 1,213 yards, five straight 100-plus games – is a half step behind Conner but could lead the Canes to the biggest ACC win of the season past FSU.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Yes, I think he’s the best, even better than Miami’s Duke Johnson. Conner is just a throwback – a big, physical running back that can take the ball 35 times a game and run right through defenses for tons of yards. It hurts him, though, that his team is so average. It’s hard to believe Pitt will be sweating out bowl eligibility with an offensive asset like that.

2. Speaking of UNC, we have a story about where its defense ranks among the worst in history among area teams. Have you covered a team with a worse defense?

Carter: I covered the final three years of Bobby Bowden’s tenure at Florida State, and the Seminoles’ 2009 defense was among the worst in the nation. But it wasn’t this bad. UNC is giving up an average of 510.3 yards per game and 6.43 yards per play. And even when the Tar Heels have played OK, in stretches, there’s always that thought in the back of your mind – and likely in the back of the players’ minds – about when they’re going to allow another huge play.

DeCock: Only the 2009-10 Carolina Hurricanes, whose blue line was a train wreck as the defensive core of the 2002 and 2006 got old and moved on. By football standards? Not even John Bunting’s teams were this bad. That says so, so much.

Giglio: I worked at the paper in 2001 when Duke gave up 390 points in eight ACC games, a record I don’t think will ever be touched. UNC gave up 322 points in ACC play two years later. In 1995, I covered a game in which N.C. State gave up 77 points (at Florida State). Defenses are down across the board, even FSU has struggled to stop teams this season. That doesn’t excuse what’s happening at UNC, which certainly isn’t helped by its style of play, but I don’t think Carolina’s even one of the three worst ACC defenses I’ve seen since ’95, certainly not any worse than ’01 Duke (the bizarro gold standard) or ’03 UNC.

Keeley: No. The worst defense I’ve ever covered was the 2012 Duke defense, which finished 11th in the 12-team ACC (remember when!), giving up an average of 469.2 yards per game. And while it wasn’t good, especially in blowout losses to Florida State and Clemson in back-to-back weeks, the Blue Devils’ defense wasn’t UNC-level bad.

3. Florida State keeps sliding in the playoff poll. It’s clear the committee isn’t impressed with the Seminoles’ resume. If they have a couple more close wins, are they in danger of not making the playoff?

Carter: The Seminoles could win the rest of their games by a field goal each, and they’d safely be in the playoff. Or should be, at least. Florida State is undefeated, still, and still the defending national champion. As long as the Seminoles keep winning, there’s nothing that can happen that would keep them out of the playoff. Which is the way it should be.

DeCock: It doesn’t matter if Florida State wins its final four games by accident or accounting error. An undefeated, defending national champion from a power conference is going to make the semifinals even if the Seminoles didn’t have wins over Clemson and Notre Dame. The rankings have been interesting as a window into the committee’s thinking, but this is one case where they’re merely silly fodder for meaningless debate. Florida State controls its own destiny, and everyone knows it.

Giglio: I don’t agree with everything the CFP selection committee has done, but I appreciate their process. They’re ranking teams as a to-date snapshot. It’s not a prediction and they’re not “slotting” teams based on weekly results. They’re comparing teams based on what they’ve done and who they’ve played and ranking them accordingly. The only mistake the committee has made thus far, in my humble opinion, is with TCU and Baylor. Specifically with the Noles, if they take care of Miami, Boston College, Florida and the Coastal Division winner, they will be in the CFP, no matter what.

Keeley: I think it’s ridiculous that FSU is slipping as it’s still winning with relative ease – it’s not like the Seminoles have had fluky wins like Auburn in 2013 (I don’t consider a valid penalty call at the end of the Notre Dame game fluky). If the Seminoles run the table, they should be in the playoff. Period, no questions asked.

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