No. 10 North Carolina enters Tuesday’s Russell Athletic Bowl against No. 17 Baylor with a school-record 12th win in reach, as well as a Top-10 national ranking in the final polls for the first time since 1997.
Larry Fedora is an admitted stat geek, one who spends his downtime tracking trends, both nationally and within in his own program. One particular trend of note is the mirrored trajectories of his head coaching stops, highlighted by double-digit wins in Year 4.
After three seasons of rebuilding rosters while winning just enough to ensure bowl eligibility, Fedora broke through in 2011 at Southern Miss with a C-USA Championship and a 12-2 record. The Tar Heels (11-2) fell short of winning the ACC Championship earlier this month, yet can complete a similar four-year run with a win over the Bears.
"It would send our seniors out the right way," Fedora said on Monday. "We would also set a foundation for our future, and a new standard for Carolina football, one that all the future teams would be compared to."
Fedora built a 34-19 record in Hattiesburg before departing for Chapel Hill, where he’s currently 32-19 despite a lingering NCAA cloud that formed prior to his arrival.
In July 2014, he told reporters that it was time for his UNC program to take its next step and challenge for the ACC Coastal Division title. During that same media interview, Fedora acknowledged that he thought his third team at Southern Miss was ready to compete for the C-USA crown.
Fedora was wrong on both accounts, but only by a year. Much like his Golden Eagles in 2011, his 2015 Tar Heels have proven skeptics wrong each and every week, amassing wins, a Coastal Division crown and the state championship along the way and competing to the final kick against No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
Securing the program’s 12th win will be difficult, even with Baylor’s No. 1-ranked offense decimated by injury. Starting quarterback Seth Russell, backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham, starting running back Shock Linwood and Biletnikoff Award winner Corey Coleman will all miss Tuesday’s bowl game for the 9-3 Bears.
Baylor ranks second nationally in yards per play (7.25), trailing only UNC’s 7.33 yards-per-play mark, yet is averaging 4.3 ypp in third-string quarterback Chris Johnson’s two starts. Head coach Art Briles and his son Kendal, the Bears’ offensive coordinator, have revamped the offensive approach to more of a one-dimensional look since Stidham went down, averaging 324 rushing yards on 70 carries over the last three games.
“We’ve got a lot of pride in this program, and I expect our guys to play very well,” Briles said. “We have talent and depth and confidence in these guys. I think they’ll also be out to prove a point.”
Baylor’s depleted offense remains potent, especially for a UNC defense that has limited its opponents’ scoring (22.6 ppg; 33rd nationally) despite allowing 216.8 rushing yards per game (109th).
Briles’ offensive scheme is unique nationally in its ability to create one-one-one matchups, yet comparable to the design of Fedora’s HUNH spread look. UNC, led by fifth-year senior quarterback Marquise Williams (2,829 passing yards, 867 rushing yards, 33 total TD), ranks 10th nationally in scoring offense (40.9), pairing a strong rushing attack (222.9 ypg) with a vertical passing game (264.0 ypg).
“[They are] really similar in terms of trying to run the ball and making that a priority, to set up some of the pass game,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “Big-time receivers, so a lot of similarities between the speed element on the perimeter and them willing to take shots down the field to these guys. They’ve really done a great job all year of capitalizing on explosive plays, so in those regards, very similar.”
UNC will be lacking its offensive coordinator following Seth Littrell’s departure to North Texas. Fedora has yet to name a full-time replacement, nor a temporary fill-in, for the bowl game, although he has acknowledged he would be more involved in the play calling at the Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Even without a win to close out the 2015 season, UNC has won 11 games for first time since 1997 and for only the fourth time in school history. Southern Miss had never won 11 games prior to 2011, setting up the possibility for Fedora to lead two different programs to a record number of wins in eight years as a head coach.
The comparisons to Fedora’s four-year stint at Southern Miss will come to an end sometime before the start of 2016, if only because everyone knows how the first story ended. With a new contract in hand, his tenure at UNC has only just begun.