What’s gone wrong for UNC football and can the Tar Heels’ season be saved?

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Year 3 of coach Mack Brown’s second tenure at North Carolina hasn’t been the season anyone expected so far.

The Tar Heels (3-3, 2-3 ACC) seemed primed to flirt with the elite programs in college football with their preseason top-10 ranking. But the results have shown the Heels to be an average college football team.

“It seems to be a year where everything that could happen bad for us has happened so far,” Brown said.

Carolina still hasn’t found replacements for the skill-position losses of receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown and running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams from last season. Receiver Josh Downs has emerged as a playmaker, but they’ve seen only glimpses of potential at running back and a second receiving threat has yet to emerge.

Here’s a look at some of the things that have gone wrong for the Tar Heels:

Road woes

Carolina has been consistent in underperforming on the road. In losses at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, the Heels’ offense had its two lowest totals in yards gained (354 and 369) and its two lowest scoring totals (10 and 22) of this season. Of the team’s nine turnovers this season, six have come in their two road losses.

UNC isn’t likely to be favored in any of its three road games remaining, at Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and N.C. State. But in order to make a bowl game, the Heels may have to win at least one of those games.

“We’re not worried about bowl games or anything like that,” quarterback Sam Howell said. “We just want to try to win the next game and go 1-0 every single week. So that’s kind of our mindset; we’re not worried about any goals.”

Offensive line has not improved

UNC returned five starters from last season’s unit that helped produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Carter and Williams. Last season, the team allowed a total of 34 sacks. UNC currently ranks last in the ACC with 23 sacks through just six games. While every sack can’t be blamed on the offensive line, the cohesiveness just hasn’t been there this season.

That’s led to the running game not being quite the same threat as it was last season. Graduate transfer Ty Chandler had a career-high 198 yards against Virginia, but his combined total in the other five games is just 286 yards.

From the start, the Heels have been hampered by injuries at center. Brian Anderson, the incumbent, has largely been out of the lineup. He started two games, but one of those starts he only played the opening series. His backup, Quiron Johnson, has played the bulk of snaps at center, but UNC was so desperate they moved reserve left tackle Cayden Baker just to see if they could get a healthy body against the Blue Devils.

A silver lining for the Heels, the line had arguably its best performance against Florida State. The Noles’ Jermaine Johnson II leads the ACC in sacks, but he didn’t get the team’s only sack until UNC’s final drive. If the line can get healthy, perhaps it could look more like the capable unit it was last season.

“As everybody can see, we have the potential to be very explosive,” running back D.J. Jones said. “But we’re just not consistent with it, and we don’t really show it a throughout the entire game. That’s something that we’ve been pushing to do as a whole offense and as a team.”

Defensive breakdowns

Brown has no answers for some of the defensive breakdowns they’ve had — especially in communication. In each of their losses, players have mentioned an opponent’s big play that was caused by defenders operating on two different schemes. It happened again in their loss to FSU to the bewilderment of Brown.

“If I got into what one of the communications was, you’d be absolutely shocked how simple it was,” Brown said. “I’ve never seen it before in my 40 something years of coaching.”

The Heels have particularly been vulnerable against teams with running quarterbacks. Georgia Tech started Jordan Yates and its offense produced just 81 yards in the first half. It wasn’t until Jeff Sims took over that the game changed. Sims rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns on UNC.

FSU’s Jordan Travis torched the Heels for 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Fortunately for UNC the remaining schedule won’t expose them as much to those quarterbacks. Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke isn’t nearly the dual threat that injured starter D’Eriq King was. Notre Dame’s Jack Coan and N.C. State’s Devin Leary are more like typical drop-back passers. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett are capable scramblers, but don’t exactly qualify as gifted running threats.

Time left to turn it around?

Carolina isn’t likely to run the table and make the ACC’s title game. No school that has three conference losses has ever won the Coastal Division since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2014. The goals may have shifted, but Brown and the players said this week’s practices have been spirited, and they still believe they can have a successful season.

UNC has never won at Notre Dame. It could still boast state bragging rights having already beaten Duke and with Wake and N.C. State on the schedule. The Heels could also play a spoiler role specifically against the Wolfpack, if the result of the regular-season finale has ACC title game implications for their rival.

“We all love this game, we all love each other and we’re gonna go to battle all six games,” Howell said. “The morale of the teams has been really positive, and it’s something that’s really good to see.”

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