The sky is falling in Chapel Hill.
That’s an easy way to look at the situation anyway. In the past two months, the Tar Heels lost another bowl game, waved goodbye to three important underclassmen (along with a host of talented seniors), endured ample rumors that head coach Larry Fedora wanted out -- even if it meant going to Baylor! -- and, most recently, had defensive coordinator Gene Chizik step down.
It’s not an ideal situation by any measure.
On defense, saying goodbye to Chizik is a concern, but he leaves the unit far better than he found it, and John Papuchis is the perfect coach to replace him. That side of the ball figures to continue to improve.
On offense, however, there are so many questions.
In 2016, Fedora went out of his way to avoid naming a true No. 2 QB behind Mitch Trubisky in part because, well, who’d earned the job? There’s still not an answer there.
UNC’s top three running backs are all gone now, too, after Elijah Hood's late change of heart regarding the NFL. When Fedora was asked about the ability of the incoming freshmen to play immediately, his response summed up the situation succinctly: They don’t have a choice.
Each year Phil Steele puts together a “yards returning” list. It’s a simple formula: Passing, rushing and receiving yards returning divided by all of the previous year’s yards.
The result I came up with for UNC in 2017: 12.7 percent.
That is lower than any team returned last year by a wide margin. It’s less, too, than any team returned from the 2014 season. In fact, by just a tick, it’s actually lower than any team brought back after the 2013 season, too (BC returned 12.8 percent that year). In fact, digging back through Steele’s lists all the way to 2009, there’s not a team that returned a lower percentage of its yards the following year than North Carolina does in 2017.
But there has to be a silver lining here, right?
OK, here goes: Ohio State (29.1 percent) and Alabama (32.5) were among the four Power 5 teams that returned the lowest percentage of their yards in 2016. Both made the College Football Playoff.
So there’s hope. Talent leaves from every team, of course. The bigger question is how much talent has been arriving, and Alabama and Ohio State had a deep reservoir to draw from when so many key starters departed.
North Carolina certainly doesn’t match the Tide or Buckeyes in recruiting, but the past few recruiting classes have been solid. From this year’s class, C.J. Cotman, J.T. Cauthen, Michael Carter and others should help immediately. Perhaps Logan Byrd, last year’s four-star signee, can push for the QB job if UNC doesn’t ink a transfer (like Brandon Harris, perhaps). The cupboard isn’t completely barren.
That’s the silver lining. But the dark clouds are still swirling.
Beyond Ohio State and Alabama (both of which actually returned a good bit more than UNC does), other teams returning less than 40 percent of their offense included Michigan State, TCU and Texas A&M, all of whom took steps backward. The same was true the previous year with Georgia Tech and South Carolina.
Overall, looking back through Steele’s data over the past five seasons, Power 5 programs returning less than 40 percent of their yards from the previous year won, on average, about 1.3 fewer games (a 16 percent decline). Thirty-two of the 47 teams in question saw a decline in wins, including 14 that dropped by at least three wins. Only 10 saw an increased win total.
So even if we look at North Carolina as a program better prepared to handle this adversity, and even if we take a glass-half-full approach to the numbers (after all, we’re talking about teams returning less than 40 percent, where the Heels are returning just 13 percent) there’s approximately as good a chance that UNC misses a bowl game as it has of winning nine games in 2017.
Again, it’s far from an ideal situation. In fact, in recent history, it’s relatively unprecedented. But the nice thing about unprecedented situations is that the first team to undertake the challenge gets to set the precedent. Perhaps North Carolina is the perfect program to defy the odds and make major change seem like a positive.