Second Half Turnaround Potential

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina reversed its 1-5 start in 2013 over the second half of the regular season to finish at 6-6. The Tar Heels are once again on the wrong side of the win-loss column at 2-4 and need four more wins to become bowl eligible.

UNC’s loss at No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday marked its fourth in a row and second such streak in two years. In 2013, the Tar Heels let a potential win against Miami slip away in the final minutes to cement their 1-5 start. Head coach Larry Fedora is hoping the turnaround that occurred following that Miami loss will happen again following his team’s defeat in South Bend.

“I guess I would say that this Notre Dame game was a lot like Miami last year,” Fedora said on Monday. “And we learned a lot of lessons in that game and we started playing much better and hopefully we'll do the same thing this year.”

The shared experience of last season’s bowl run could serve as a foundation for his current roster, according to Fedora.

“There are lessons that you take from it, and that's why you don't get too discouraged with where you are because you know what you can do,” he said. “You've just got to get it changed.”

There are similarities and differences in comparing last year’s team and the current squad at the midway point of the season.

UNC’s 2013 offense was slightly better at moving the ball (5.6 yards per play vs. 5.5) although the 2014 edition has been significantly better in red zone production (74.1 percent of 27 RZ trips have been touchdowns compared to 52.6 percent of 19 RZ trips in ‘13).

Defensively, the current squad is allowing 6.2 yards per play compared to 5.8 yards per play through six games last season. Red zone woes are more pronounced this season as opponents have converted 19 of 26 attempts (73.1 percent) into touchdowns, compared to 62.5 percent in 2013 (15-of-24).

There were three significant components of UNC’s turnaround in 2013 – defense, non-offensive touchdowns and a soft schedule. While the offense’s yards per play against FBS opponents remained steady (5.6) over the second half of the season, the defense’s yards per play plummeted to 4.7 against FBS opponents.

Kareem Martin’s emergence at defensive end (8.5 sacks over final 6 games) played a significant role in the defense’s jump in 2013. After totaling 10 sacks through the first half of the 2013 schedule, UNC had 17 over the final half dozen.

UNC also has 10 sacks through six games this season.

Special teams also provided a scoring boost during UNC’s 5-1 close to 2013. Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan combined for five kick returns for touchdown during the final six games of the regular season and added two more in the Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati. A pair of Switzer’s punt returns for touchdown came in UNC’s 34-27 win at Pittsburgh.

UNC set a school record with eight non-offensive touchdowns in 2013 and all eight occurred after the midway point of the season. UNC has scored three non-offensive touchdowns already this season, all coming on interception returns for touchdown.

One final glaring similarity in this season and last is the front-loaded schedule. UNC’s first six games in 2013 ranked as the fourth-most difficult schedule nationally, according to USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin. UNC’s 2014 opening slate currently ranks 14th nationally.

The primary component of UNC’s 2013 turnaround – the biggest in school history – was a weak second-half schedule. In addition to FCS opponent Old Dominion, UNC had two of the weakest P5 conference schools in Virginia and N.C. State on its closing slate. The Cavaliers and Wolfpack combined to post a 0-16 record in ACC play in 2013.

The other three teams were Pittsburgh (No. 56 in Sagarin’s ratings), Duke (57th) and Boston College (58th). Virginia (90th) and N.C. State (94th) rounded out the FBS opposition.

Here are UNC’s final six opponents of 2014, in order of Sagarin rating: Duke (37th), Miami (47th), Georgia Tech (51st), Virginia (52nd), Pittsburgh (54th) and N.C. State (79th).

At the midway point of the 2013 season, UNC’s final six opponents (including ODU) had combined for a 21-18 record. As of Tuesday, UNC’s final six opponents had combined for a 25-13 record.

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