January 29, 2010

Mailbag: A tough tradition in Chapel Hill

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It must rankle those in Carolina blue to acknowledge that frequently struggling programs such as SMU, Baylor, Arizona, Northwestern, Syracuse, San Diego State, Wyoming and Wake Forest have more recently won conference championships than North Carolina.

Not since going 11-1 under Dick Crum in 1980 have the Tar Heels celebrated - or even shared - an ACC crown.

They've often come close. Crum guided the Tar Heels to a 10-2 finish in 1981, but Clemson won the national championship that year. UNC posted at least 10 wins in '93, '96 and '97 under Mack Brown, but the Heels couldn't get past Florida State - which joined the ACC in '92.

Still, North Carolina's drought isn't nearly as severe as some others. Indiana and Minnesota haven't raised a Big Ten trophy since sharing the title with Purdue in 1967. Ole Miss has been waiting since 1963 for another SEC championship. Mississippi State hasn't won since 1941. Vanderbilt never has won it. Iowa State's last conference championship came in 1912, when it shared the Missouri Valley title with Nebraska.

Still, 30 years is a long time to wait. But as we see in this week's mailbag, the fans in Chapel Hill may not have to wait much longer.

Carolina climb

When will Butch Davis finally turn the corner at North Carolina? Do you see Davis staying at North Carolina for the long haul? He has had some opportunities already to bolt, but has held fast to his commitment.
Rocky Mount, N.C.

North Carolina had endured six consecutive non-winning seasons before posting back-to-back 8-5 finishes in '08 and '09. Therefore, it's reasonable to say the Tar Heels have turned the corner under Davis.

Although likely to be ranked behind Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami in the ACC's Coastal Division in preseason polls this fall, the Tar Heels will have a legitimate chance at winning the division and conference crown.

The Tar Heels were tantalizingly close to posting a huge year in '09; they had the lead going into the fourth quarter in three of their losses. Those three losses - to Florida State, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh - were by a combined six points. With 10 returning starters on offense and nine on defense, perhaps 2010 is when they will be better-equipped to pull out close games.

Defensively, North Carolina could be as good as any team in the country. This past season, the Tar Heels ranked sixth nationally in total defense, and seven returning starters are seniors. Five of those players, including tackle Marvin Austin and linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, passed up the NFL draft to stay for another season in Chapel Hill.

But the quarterback play was disappointing last season and is the primary reason North Carolina projects behind the other contenders in the Coastal Division. Quarterback T.J. Yates lacked consistency and threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14).

Yates will be a senior this fall. If he improves, the Tar Heels will be tough to beat. If he doesn't, North Carolina can hope redshirt freshman Bryn Renner can handle the job.

UNC figures to at least equal last season's eight victories, and a championship isn't out of the question. The Tar Heels clearly are getting better, and that's not likely to change because Davis doesn't appear eager to leave. Arkansas, Notre Dame and Tennessee have been rumored to have been interested in him when they were searching for new coaches. Yet he remains at North Carolina. I think he's there to stay.

Tougher in Tallahassee?

What's your take on Mark Stoops as the new defensive coordinator at Florida State? Do you think he can turn it around with his new staff? The Seminoles have a lot of talent and underperformed in 2009. They have an excellent defensive class coming in and a potent offense. Do you think Florida State has a legitimate shot at a BCS bid?
Jacksonville, Fla.

Stoops' defenses typically are tough and physical. When he joined his brother, Mike, at Arizona in 2004, he took over a defensive unit that had allowed 460 yards per game (109th nationally) and 35.8 points per game (107th nationally) in 2003. The next season, those stats improved to 379.4 yards per game (61st nationally) and 25 points per game (55th).

In the past two seasons, the Wildcats ranked 24th and 25th nationally in total defense.

Constructing big, strong, ornery defenses is the Stoops family business, and Mark Stoops will put together those types of units in Tallahassee. But how long will it take?

Six defensive starters return, but the Seminoles ranked 108th in total defense and 94th in scoring defense in '09. Bolstering that defense doesn't figure to be a one-year job.

True, the Seminoles are expected to haul in a bunch of defensive talent on National Signing Day. But are true freshmen going to turn around FSU's defense? They often need a year to adapt and mature.

The Seminoles allowed at least 37 points in four of their six losses in '09, so any improvement could mean a spike in the 2010 win total - especially with what should be a potent offense.

Still, I'm skeptical that FSU will reach a BCS game this fall. I'd rate Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami ahead of the Seminoles in the ACC.

Going farther

I saw the story on explosive players with the most plays of at least 20 yards. What returning players had the most plays of at least 50 yards?
Hawthorne, Fla.

Clemson's C.J. Spiller, who completed his eligibility, turned in a remarkable 12 plays (rushes, receptions and returns) of more than 50 yards to lead the nation last season.

Of players who will play in 2010, West Virginia's Noel Devine had the most 50-yard plays with seven. All seven were runs.

According to Marty Couvillon of cfbstats.com, five returning players had six 50-yard plays: Nevada running back Vai Taua, North Texas running back Lance Dunbar, Tulsa wide receiver Damaris Johnson, Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu and Houston wide receiver Tyron Carrier.

All of Taua's big plays came on rushes. Dunbar's came on five rushes and one reception. Johnson's were on three receptions, a punt return and two kickoff returns. Owusu and Carrier had five kickoff returns and one reception.

Incidentally, Carrier had four kickoff returns for touchdowns this past season.

Lost earnings

When is pro football going to start compensating colleges for players who declare early for the draft? Colleges spend a lot of money on scholarships, training and building athletes, then they turn pro early.
Georgetown, Texas

The NFL never will pay colleges a fee for players who leave early. Or at least not until those colleges start paying players that produce millions for their programs.

Most college football programs that routinely have players talented enough to enter the NFL draft early are doing just fine, financially.

It's the player's option to leave school early. The NFL doesn't force him. Basketball players have been leaving school early for decades, but schools haven't been compensated by the NBA.

Bruin hopes

How competitive can UCLA be in the Pac-10 in 2010 with coach Rick Neuheisel's recruiting class and some key players returning?
Los Angeles

One of those key returning players is Kai Forbath, who arguably will be the best kicker in the country. Unfortunately, he's also UCLA's greatest offensive threat.

The Bruins, who finished eighth in the Pac-10 this past season, figure to be more competitive in 2010. But they won't legitimately contend for a championship because of a stagnant offense.

Quarterback Kevin Prince showed some promise in his first season as the starter. Running back Johnathan Franklin rushed for nearly 600 yards as a freshman. The top two receivers, Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario, were sophomores.

But the line play was erratic. UCLA averaged just 114 rushing yards and gave up 29 sacks. The Bruins have to get much better up front. Four line starters return, but whether that's good or bad depends on how much they can improve.

Complicating matters, the defense - which undoubtedly was a point of strength - loses six starters. Three of those departed starters were standouts Brian Price (DT), Reggie Carter (LB) and Al Verner (CB).

There are outstanding players, such as linebacker Akeem Ayers and free safety Rahim Moore, returning. But can the Bruins really expect to be as good on defense? Probably not.

Neuheisel has put together a couple of top-15 recruiting classes, and appears on the way to assembling a third. Those players are still young, but some will be ready to step into starting roles and may be an upgrade at their positions.

Surprises do happen. After all, Oregon wasn't expected to win the Pac-10 title this past season. It definitely wasn't anticipated that USC would finish fifth in the conference. Perhaps the Bruins can be one of the surprise teams of 2010.

But from here, it appears UCLA is at least another year away from realistically challenging for the Pac-10 championship.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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