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By the Numbers: North Carolina

North Carolina's offense steadily worsened last season as it got into more precarious or more important positions. That could cause them a ton of problems against the Gamecock defense on Thursday.

Bryn Renner will look to lead the Tar Heels to an upset victory of the Gamecocks on Thursday night.
Bryn Renner will look to lead the Tar Heels to an upset victory of the Gamecocks on Thursday night.

The Tar Heels come to Columbia on Thursday evening with an upset on their mind.  While the Gamecocks will of course need to handle their business on the offensive side of the ball (and prevent doing anything on special teams that could cause the game to flip against themselves), it seems the strength versus strength match-up of the North Carolina offense versus the Gamecock defense is the talk of the town as the game draws near.

Looking back at last season's advanced statistics, the fact I found most interesting was that North Carolina's offense got progressively worse as the stakes increased.  If they stay on schedule, this is one of the best offenses in the country.  But when they get off schedule, or when they get into the red zone, the Tar Heels really struggled.  Unfortunately for them, the Gamecock defense only improves in those situations.*

*As a point of clarification, of course your defense does better as it gains advantages and the offense does worse as it faces disadvantages.  Our point here is not that, it's that relative to what you would expect an average team to do facing the exact same situation, the Tar Heels are worse on offense in 2nd/3rd-and long, and in the red zone.  Keep that in mind.

Let's take a look at this from two angles: standard downs versus passing downs; and redzone play.

1. North Carolina Regressed on Passing Downs in 2012

The Tar Heels liked to stay on schedule, and were effective when they did so in 2012.  However, watch the jump when they moved to passing downs (defined as 2nd and 7+, 3rd and 5+, and 4th or 5+) to standard downs (all non-passing downs), and compare that to the Gamecocks' defense:

UNC Offense USC Defense
Category S&P+ Rk Success PPP+ Rk Category S&P+ Rk Success PPP+ Rk
Rt. Rk Rt. Rk
OVERALL 26 22 31 OVERALL 9 13 9
RUSHING 42 43 41 RUSHING 12 14 13
PASSING 29 10 36 PASSING 10 13 10
Standard Downs 22 20 24 Standard Downs 8 7 10
Passing Downs 41 25 49 Passing Downs 15 22 14

As a reminder, Success Rate is defined 50% of needed yards on first down, 70% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down.  Points per play values each play based on the amount of expected points increased or decreased by that play.  For a reference, think of Success Rate as on-base percentage, PPP as slugging (explosiveness), and S&P as OPS.  The + is for the fact that it adjusts for strength of schedule.

So back to the good stuff.  As you see here, the Tar Heels were relatively good at both staying on schedule (success rate) and being explosive (PPP) in standard downs last season.  However, as you can also easily see, the Gamecocks were no slouches themselves in preventing teams from keeping schedule, and were also able to do so while not risking big plays.

It appears this difference may come from Chapel Hill's inability to take its short passing game and turn those plays into explosive plays.  As you see there in the passing column, North Carolina was far more successful in using its passing game to keep the chains moving than it was in creating explosive plays.  And again, when you look over on the Gamecock side of the ledger, you see excellence across the board.

The Tar Heels also became somewhat predictable in passing down situations, passing 73.7% of the time (nationally, teams throw on 66.7% of passing downs).  And one thing you do not want to do against the Gamecock defense is become predictable, no matter how quickly you get the ball out as a QB.

So, while I'd expect the Tar Heels to complete a bunch of passes, this could end up like the Missouri game last season, where the Tigers completed almost 70% of their passes (18-26), but only gained 146 yards (good for a piddling 5.6 yards/att.).  Even an effort similar to the one the Gamecocks put up against the Clemson Tigers (who were 11-24 for 183 yards, or 7.6 yards/att.) should keep the Heels at bay.

One way that the Gamecocks impacted the passing game against Clemson (and most teams they played) that likely won't work as well against the Heels is through the sack.  Last season, Clowney and company recorded 43 sacks on 379 pass attempts, which works out to a sack rate of 10.2%.

While we all agree that UNC didn't see a pass rush like the one they'll see on Thursday last year, Renner simply doesn't take sacks - his 2.6% rate (11 sacks versus 422 pass attempts) last year approaches Tyler Bray territory (who the Gamecocks only took down once, in a play you may recall).  While Tennessee employed a more downfield passing game than we'll see from the Tar Heels, both Renner and Bray paired 60%+ completion percentages with an 8.0 yards per attempt rate.  Renner is good.

2.  North Carolina Markedly Worsened in the Redzone.

The numbers below tell a clear tale - the Tar Heels simply didn't get it done in the redzone last year despite moving the ball efficiently down the field, whereas the Gamecock defense continued to torment their opponents no matter their location on the field.

UNC Offense USC Defense
Category S&P+ Rk Success PPP+ Rk Category S&P+ Rk Success PPP+ Rk
Rt. Rk Rt. Rk
Redzone 91 89 90 Redzone 11 12 11

As you can tell rather quickly from that chart, the Heels struggled to move the ball either consistently or for big yardage close to the goal line.  And Chapel Hill is not going to win this game kicking FGs against the Gamecocks.

3.  While Anything Can Happen, It Most Likely Won't.

Obviously there are some critical changes to each team - the Gamecocks are breaking in an entirely new linebacking corps, and North Carolina will miss the departed Giovani Bernard to boost its running game.  Moreover, Fedora's Southern Miss team of 2011 didn't miss a beat on passing downs, ranking 18th in S&P+ that season, so it's not entirely schematic (if it were, Clemson would struggle on passing downs, and they were 2nd in the NCAA last year).

But ultimately, the Gamecocks will put a better team on the field on Thursday night than the Tar Heels will, and they'll be playing in Columbia.  When you do that, you're the odds-on favorite to win.  Look for Spurrier and the Carolina Gamecocks to jump out of the gate at 1-0.

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