September 25, 2007
CHAPEL HILL - The multitude of mistakes that have been woven through the fabric of North Carolina's football program since Mack Brown left for Texas in late 1997 glared like neon strips in week four at South Florida.
The poor choices for head coaches, and in turn their many ill-conceived picks for assistants, compounded like interest on a bank account throughout the last nine seasons. Only in this case, it formed negative equity, not greater riches.
South Florida, a team filled with speed and athleticism in the tradition of the more familiar Florida State or Miami, took a Carolina team that had been so obviously well-coached in its first three games - coming within single digits of being undefeated - and held it aloft for the world to see its underbelly.
The gap between the ugly episodes of recent years, such as thorough thrashings at Utah, Virginia and Clemson, and what may be the eventual success of the Butch Davis era, appeared more cavernous than the space between one's thumb and finger that may have been used to describe the same idea a week earlier.
After the 37-10 South Florida debacle, Davis, his staff, his players and the fans that support them were left to wonder where the truth lies.
Just recently, Georgia Tech had been praised as a phenomenon by many, while Virginia and coach Al Groh were a dartboard for fans and detractors alike. When Carolina came within a field goal of defeating UVa, it seemed to signal how far the Tar Heels had come under Davis already, and what a fine line Groh's Cavaliers continue to walk.
Yet Virginia recently edged Georgia Tech to move to 3-1 overall, 3-0 in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets, proclaimed great by some after beating a miserable excuse for a football team in South Bend, Ind., to open the season and then romping over mighty Samford, fell to 2-2, 0-2 in the ACC.
This all raises the question: Were does the truth lie? The reality of the situation appears to reside in this neighborhood:
p South Florida, which defeated Auburn on the road two weeks before drubbing the Tar Heels, has a roster jammed full of long, rangy, fast athletes. The Bulls could be the BCS representative for the Big East. They still must deal with West Virginia. The foundation for the South Florida program is built on similar material Bobby Bowden said he used to construct the once-great FSU dynasty: super athletes who might not always be the best students.
p Georgia Tech may be the most overrated team in the ACC. It was a year ago, as well, having fed off the bloated carcass of a sick league. The fact that the Yellow Jackets played Wake Forest in the conference title game in 2006 is a stark example of how far the league has fallen and how little expansion has done to improve the quality of football along the eastern seaboard.
p Virginia is not the second coming, but for anyone who has seen the Cavaliers live, it's clear that they have a nice collection of big, strong, fast athletes, especially on defense. But beating Carolina and Georgia Tech is no great indicator of what these Cavaliers eventually will become, because their margin for error is as thin as deli-sliced ham.
IMPROVEMENT MAY COME SLOWLY
Just what does all of this mean for Carolina?
It doesn't change any of what has been pretty clear about this team and the program since Davis took control in November 2006.
UNC has more talent than it has had at any point since Julius Peppers, Ronald Curry, Ryan Sims and other future NFL players went an uninspiring 8-5 in 2001. This talent is young - way too young to have a realistic hope of winning many games in Davis' first season. This is not the teams Brown stumbled to 2-20 with in 1988 and '89, but it is not the 1998 team Brown left for Carl Torbush, either.
Quarterback T.J. Yates had a poor day against South Florida. Realistically, most quarterbacks facing a defensive line of athletes bent down into a sprinter's stance and blowing by the offensive line as if it were growing roots in the Bermuda grass would struggle.
Those defensive linemen knew Carolina is devoid of a running game, so not much has changed since Curry spent four years running for his life and serving as one of the few functional running backs for the Tar Heels.
The qualities Yates displayed in the first three games, though, are as real today as they were then. His challenge is to overcome the beating he took against the Bulls and the poor choices he made. Florida State's Chris Weinke threw six interceptions in a 24-7 loss at N.C. State in 1998. The next season, Weinke led the Seminoles to an undefeated season and the national championship, and he won the Heisman Trophy along the way.
That is not to suggest that Yates and Carolina will be great next year. What it says is that every quarterback is going to have some miserable days, particularly when he cannot or will not rely on a strong running game to stave off the defensive line.
Out of stubbornness, FSU chose not to run the ball against the Wolfpack. Carolina simply cannot run it yet.
"For our football team to get better, we have got to become more multi-dimensional on offense," Davis said. "We cannot rely solely on T.J. Yates going out and expect him to throw for 350 yards a game and throw for three or four touchdowns and think everything's going to be hunky-dory."
Davis and his staff will not sour on this team. It's not their style. They'll keep the Tar Heels playing hard, and they'll search for whatever they can do to keep the 2007 season from becoming a complete train wreck.
But what UNC's performance in Tampa showed was that the Tar Heels have some problems created by recruiting that only recruiting is going to repair, and that means it will take Davis and his assistants some time to implement the fix.
Nine years of mismanagement cannot be overcome in 10 months. East Carolina and Virginia proved that against UNC early this season. South Florida reminded everyone, in overwhelming fashion, of the same harsh reality.