UNC showing dramatic improvement from long 2014 season

North Carolina’s Donnie Miles (15) and his teammates celebrate their 50-14 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday, October 17, 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Donnie Miles (15) and his teammates celebrate their 50-14 victory over Wake Forest on Saturday, October 17, 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s 5-1 record at the midpoint of the season tells part of the story but hardly all of its dramatic improvement from last season to this one. In just about every measurable way, the Tar Heels are much better – much, much better, in some instances – than they were last season.

Start with the obvious: UNC at this point last season was 2-4, and riding a four-game losing streak into the halfway point of the season. About a year later, the Tar Heels are 5-1, and they’ve won five consecutive games.

As I’ve been known to do at times I asked Larry Fedora, in his fourth season as UNC’s head coach, something of a silly question earlier this week: Just how much better is this, being 5-1 at the midpoint, compared to what UNC had been used to recently – 2-4 last season and 1-5 the season before that?

“It feels a whole lot better,” Fedora said. “And that’s not a dumb question at all. It’s a confidence-booster for our football team. It makes them feel better about everything that we’re doing. Everything. So we continue to keep doing the same things.

“I talked about it with them the other day – don’t forget what it took to get to this point.”

Before we go further, it’s important to point out that UNC’s schedule in each of the past two seasons was more difficult on the front end than the back end. The opposite is true this season. The Tar Heels have played two FCS opponents (N.C. A&T and Delaware), lost in ugly, sloppy fashion against South Carolina and have yet to get to the meat of their ACC schedule.

Last season at this point, UNC had already played against Clemson and Notre Dame, and it had gone on the road against a good East Carolina team. The first six games haven’t been nearly as difficult, overall, this season.

But still. UNC did end an eight-game road losing streak at Georgia Tech. And it did dismantle Wake Forest, which was competitive against Florida State, last weekend at Kenan Stadium. And, if you take a closer look at the numbers, it’s impossible not to notice how far UNC has come in a statistical sense.

Let’s take a look at some of the most-commonly referenced statistics – things like total offense and total defense, scoring and some of the others. Below is a list of those statistics, with UNC’s national rank (and the actual stat in parenthesis) at the midpoint of last season and from the midpoint of this season. Here goes:

Total defense

2014 midseason: 117 (508 yards per game)

2015 midseason: 35 (349.3 yards per game)

Passing defense

2014: 122 (316.3)

2015: 3 (135.5)

Rushing defense

2014: 95 (191.7)

2015: 112 (213.8)

Total offense

2014: 51 (431.2)

2015: 21 (482.2)

Passing offense

2014: 30 (285)

2015: 34 (263.7)

Rushing offense

2014: 86 (146.2)

2015: 20 (218.5)

Scoring defense

2014: 124 (43.3)

2015: 18 (17.3)

Scoring offense

2014: 26 (37.2)

2015: 10 (40.5)

Turnover margin

2014: 30 (.5)

2015: 56 (.17)

Third down conversion

2014: 68 (40.6 percent)

2015: 4 (50.7 percent)

Penalties per game

2014: 116 (9.5)

2015: 28 (5.17)

Penalty yards per game

2014: 113 (78)

2015: 14 (39.5)

That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? At the midpoint of last season, UNC ranked 124th nationally in scoring defense and 117th nationally in total defense, well on the way to finishing with one of the worst defensive seasons in school history. Many of the questions that surrounded UNC before the start of this season were about the defense and first-year coordinator Gene Chizik.

Would the Tar Heels be that much better with Chizik? How much improvement could be expected? How much was even realistic to expect? Well, after six games we have some answers. And they are: Yes. A decent amount, it turns out. And a lot.

Granted, playing two FCS opponents skews the numbers some. And so does playing against run-heavy teams, which is why the rushing defense has actually declined, on paper. Even so, did anyone expect UNC to rank 35th nationally in total defense at the midpoint of the season? Did anyone see the Tar Heels allowing only 17.3 points per game? UNC didn’t allow so few points in any one game a season ago, and now it’s giving up that many on average.

The most dramatic statistical improvement, though, belongs to the pass defense. At this point last season, UNC ranked 122nd nationally and was allowing an average of 316.3 yards per game. After six games this season, the Tar Heels are allowing 135.5 passing yards per game, which ranks third nationally.

That comes with another qualifier: The Tar Heels haven’t exactly played any strong passing teams. South Carolina wasn’t one. Georgia Tech, with its triple-option, relies little on the pass. Wake Forest’s offense might be as bad as UNC’s defense was last season. But still (again): Even bad offenses, or ones that didn’t rely as much on the pass, took advantage of UNC’s deficiencies against the pass last season. Not this season.

Aside from the defense, the rushing offense has improved significantly. And UNC has come a ways, too, in a couple of other areas: third-down conversion offense and avoiding penalties. The Tar Heels are converting about 10 percent more third downs than they were last season. They rank fourth nationally in that statistic.

And UNC has nearly cut its penalties in half from what they were last season. The Tar Heels at this point last season were averaging 9.5 penalties per game, which ranked 117th nationally. Now they’re averaging 5.17 penalties per game, which ranks a much more respectable 28th nationally.

The numbers – from its record to its statistics – show how far UNC has come. The question now: Can the Tar Heels keep it going? The schedule is about to become more difficult – perhaps not this weekend against Virginia but not long after.

After the Virginia game, UNC plays at Pitt on a Thursday night, and then ends the season against Duke, Miami, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. No, it’s not exactly like going through the SEC West, but that stretch includes the Tar Heels’ most significant competition in the Coastal Division. And then there’s the regular season finale at N.C. State, which had its way against UNC last season.

More and more, though, the Tar Heels are proving that what happened last season really is a thing of the past. They’re making good, too, of the work they put in to make sure that what happened last season wouldn’t happen again.

“Ever since January (after) we lost to Rutgers (in the Quick Lane Bowl) we all came together and just said, ‘We’re tired of losing,’ ” defensive end Dajaun Drennon said earlier this week. “We don’t want to be a losing team. Going 6-7 last year was just completely unacceptable. We tried to change that mindset and really put UNC back on the map.”

There’s still work to be done there. The Tar Heels are the only one-loss team from a Power 5 conference that’s not ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The memory of that season-opening loss against South Carolina hasn’t been erased, nor have the mediocre (or worse) results of the past two seasons.

As Fedora likes to say, though, these are the 2015 Tar Heels. They happen to be the first UNC team since 1997 to start 2-0 in the ACC, and a victory against Virginia this weekend would give UNC its best start since that ’97 season, which was arguably the best in school history. The numbers have changed. And if they stay where they are so, too, will the perception that surrounds Fedora’s program.