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Take 2: Is UNC the ACC's top offense?

4/1/2015

Teams are still working their way through spring practice, so a lot can change. But ACC bloggers Andrea Adelson and David Hale decided to take the gloves off to debate whether North Carolina’s offense could emerge as the league’s best in 2015.

Andrea says no way: We can agree on one thing, David -- North Carolina has a wealth of offensive talent. But we could say the same every single year. The Tar Heels draw us in with what they could do. Then they show us what they can’t do -- harness that potential into a consistent winner.

I can do you two better on offense in 2015: Clemson and Georgia Tech. Both return better quarterbacks, so they get the edge even though the Tar Heels return more starters. Why? The Tigers and Jackets at least have a recent track record of success when the right quarterback is behind center.

Both teams have the right quarterback under center this season.

First, let’s make the case for Clemson. A healthy Deshaun Watson is the best player in the ACC. In eight games last year (and just five starts) Watson completed 67.9 percent of his passes, had a 188.6 pass efficiency rating and added 200 yards rushing on 63 carries. That ranks him first in school history in passing efficiency, first in yards per passing attempt (10.7), first in total offensive yards per play (8.3) and second in completion percentage.

As a true freshman.

Clemson has more than just Watson, though. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott have the potential to finish as 1,000-yard receivers -- they nearly did a year ago with two different quarterbacks throwing the ball to them. The Tigers also have tremendous depth at running back with every major contributor returning, plus the emergence of C.J. Fuller this spring.

Let’s compare offensive production the last three seasons at both Clemson and North Carolina. The Tigers have averaged 476.2 yards of offense; North Carolina has averaged 447. Clemson averaged over 500 yards in 2012 and 2013 with the right quarterback leading the offense (Tajh Boyd). North Carolina has not hit that mark under Larry Fedora. So a healthy Watson means Clemson should be on course to get back into the 500 yard range.

Clemson > North Carolina.

Now, let’s make the case for Georgia Tech. The Jackets led the ACC in offense last year and return Justin Thomas plus four starting offensive linemen -- the most important cogs in making the triple-option offense work. Yes, a go-to receiver and starting A and B backs must be found, but Thomas was the most important player in the offense a year ago.

His total offense average per play was 7.4 yards, better than North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams. Georgia Tech set nine school offensive records, and was the only offense in the nation that was efficient on 60 percent or more of its offensive plays.

Clemson and Georgia Tech are just two candidates. Miami returns just as much talent on offense, so the Canes could be poised for a big year on offense. So could NC State, which demolished North Carolina in their finale a year ago.

The talent is there for North Carolina. But we have seen way too often how that storyline ends.

David says the Heels will take the next step: In a debate of UNC or the field, I’m well aware I have the distinct disadvantage here, but I’m willing to roll the dice on the Tar Heels for a number of very good reasons.

We’ve already dug through the numbers that suggest the Tar Heels, even with just a relatively minor step forward, are in prime position to post the league’s most prolific offense.

But let’s step away from the projections and look at the talent UNC has to work with.

First off, there’s no argument here that Watson can be a star or that Thomas is the perfect fit for Tech’s scheme. But Watson has also endured three relatively significant injuries in less than a year, and there are no guarantees he can hold up over a full season. He's also going to be working with a new coordinator rather than the architect of those great Clemson offenses of the past few years. And while Thomas runs the option offense with precision, Tech is also losing its top two receivers, five of its top six running backs and an All-American on the O-line. That’s a lot to replace.

Then turn your attention to North Carolina. Marquise Williams hasn’t gotten the recognition, but by virtually any metric, he’s one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the league, posting stats that rivaled Heisman candidates last year. Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins, Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard give the Heels arguably the deepest receiving corps in the ACC, each with a skill set that adds a different dynamic to the group. The ground game needs some work, admittedly, but T.J. Logan improved as the year went along, Elijah Hood should be healthier in 2015, and Marquise Williams’ legs add a level of versatility to the offense that make up for any shortcomings among the tailbacks.

And then there’s this: Offensive battles are won in the trenches, and UNC returns its entire two deep on the line. That’s not something Georgia Tech or Clemson or any other ACC team can say.

The Heels averaged 430 yards of offense a game last season while running at a pace that no Power 5 team in the country has matched in decades. Fedora now has both talent and experience to work with -- something he’s never had before -- which bodes well for a group that was already really good to blossom into one of the country’s best.

Of course, can we also take a minute to note that we've gone through this whole debate without mentioning Florida State? I won't be surprised if Jimbo Fisher makes us both end up looking silly.