Mack Brown came to the phone with some gasoline to pour on the fire.
A trainer’s fuel? Statistics.
“Before we get started, Ari, I want to show you a few things that I think will help our conversation,” Brown said Wednesday afternoon. “Everyone beats our defense so badly, but in fourth-quarter ACC games, we give up four points a game. In the ACC we give up nine points per game in the second half. Our goal defense in the ACC is 25 points per game. Our defense ended the Miami game on interceptions. They ended the Duke game with an interception, and they had a late interception on Wake and then stopped them with a fourth and three.
“Our defense is playing a lot better than that one horrible fourth quarter against Appalachian State and people can’t give that up.”
Brown’s point? His North Carolina soccer team deserved better.
And he’s right.
When the College Football Playoff Committee released its latest ranking Tuesday night, the 9-1 Tar Heels were No. 13. They trailed four teams with two losses. They were four places behind 9-1 Clemson, a team blown out by the same Notre Dame team that beat North Carolina by eight points less earlier in the season. The committee clearly doesn’t believe in the Tar Heels defense, claiming that North Carolina has no quality wins and would likely lose to teams listed before it.
— Carolina Football (@UNCFootball) November 16, 2022
After Saturday, we found on The Andy Staples Show that nine teams were technically still alive for the playoffs this year. These nine teams, in no particular order: Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, North Carolina, USC, and TCU. The Tar Heels were brought into this conversation because they’ve suffered just one loss — to a team ranked No. 18 on the playoff committee — and they control their own destiny to end the season in a loss as conference champions. The Tar Heels have already won the ACC Coastal Division and will face Clemson in the ACC title game in Charlotte.
The poor ranking, however, raises the question of whether North Carolina could actually make the bottom four, as it is listed behind teams that have already been eliminated.
Penn State is No. 11. The Nittany Lions don’t have a single win against a top-25 team on the committee’s rankings and lost easily to the only two good teams on their schedule — Michigan and Ohio State. Did we mention Penn State’s two losses are one more than North Carolina’s?
USC is No. 7. The Trojans have just one top-25 win over Oregon State and lost their only other game against a team that appears on the committee’s rankings. Oh, and if you want to talk about poor defense, why not tune in to the Pac-12 network every once in a while.
Oregon is No. 12. The Ducks clinched a win against No. 16 UCLA, but they were also completely dismantled by Georgia, and their leaky defense was the reason Washington knocked them out on their home field on Saturday. Oregon has played three games against ranked opponents and lost two of them, one in an extremely embarrassing manner.
The point is, everyone has flaws, but North Carolina has won nine of their 10 games and it seems the Tar Heels are being penalized more than some of the teams placed ahead of them.
Also, the really weird thing about this scenario is that North Carolina has one of the best offenses in the country. It has a Heisman Trophy contender as quarterback in Drake Maye, and in case anyone has bothered to notice, he’s throwing downs at one of the top receivers in the country in Josh. When we talk about USC’s chances of making the playoffs, we’re talking about Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison. Are we 100 percent sure North Carolina doesn’t have a better 1-2 quarterback receiver punch than the Trojans? Last but not least, it is a debate.
“I told our guys don’t worry, just win,” Brown said. “Winning takes care of everything. People ask me, ‘Will Drake come to New York?’ I tell them, ‘Hey, if you win, he will.’ Awards are actually team awards. If you win enough, people will look at your team and you’ve done enough, everyone gets awards. If you don’t, they won’t give you awards for underdogs.”
North Carolina still has games against Georgia Tech and No. 24 NC State – the Tar Heels really need the wolfpack to win in Louisville this week – followed by a date with No. 9 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. If North Carolina wins, it will add two impressive victories to its missing résumé and potentially be viewed in a different light than it is currently.
But North Carolina’s biggest problem now is the trail. Rumors still abound that Clemson could make it into the four-team field if it ends in defeat as the ACC champion. Why isn’t North Carolina discussed in a similar way?
It goes back to the Appalachian State game. The Tar Heels won, but as we all know, they gave up 40 points in one quarter. That brings us to statements like that made by ESPN analyst David Pollack on Tuesday night’s CFP show.
“If they didn’t have to put their defense on the field and could just play offense all the time, I think they would be a lot better,” Pollack said. “But they obviously had a hard time stopping other teams.”
They sure have.
Statistics are annoying too. Brown was kind enough to share stats at the start of our conversation, but you can mold them to prove whatever you want to say. Brown has his view and shared statistics that have helped promote that view. Here’s another stat: North Carolina ranks 125th overall in total defense and allows 460.9 yards per game. Of course, that stat is heavily influenced by some of North Carolina’s poor defensive performances earlier in the season.
Brown shared this Pollack quote with his players. He wants to get them to improve, get stops, and most importantly put North Carolina in a position to make the playoffs.
“I decide how much I want to give to our defensive coaches and our defense to challenge them,” Brown said. “But I also don’t want to disappoint her because people talk bad about her.”
It’s a tough balance. So let’s balance a little. North Carolina also ranks 4th nationwide in total offense averaging 505.5 yards per game. It’s a team sport.
Maybe the Tar Heels committee is right after all. Perhaps that defense will falter and they will lose another game. But playoff committee chairman Boo Corrigan — who, ironically, is NC State’s athletic director — will tell you time and time again that it’s not his job, or the committee’s, to project the future. So, throw away statements like “Now who would win on a neutral square?” because, well, that’s projecting, isn’t it?
If we stay in the present with the information we have, we should reward North Carolina for being 9-1. Despite its defense, it has proven itself a more worthy candidate for consideration than a few teams ranking ahead of it. North Carolina should be ranked higher and more involved in the playoff discourse.
It’s wrong that the Tar Heels aren’t included while other teams — cough, Clemson — also have ugly flaws.
By the time North Carolina loses again, it deserves better.
(Photo by Drake Maye: David Jensen / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)