On Tuesday, the website collegefootballdata.com released a tool that allows readers to look at their favorite team’s SP+ ratings over time. SP+ is a creation of ESPN’s Bill Connelly, who describes his advanced metric as “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency.” Essentially, it ranks all college football teams using advanced stats that cut out most of the noise that usually exists in rankings.
And, one of the coolest parts of the visualization that collegefootballdata.com released is that these rankings go back until 1972. So in one chart, it’s possible to examine the modern history of UNC Football and see all the program’s ups and downs. So let’s take a look at that exact chart, stopping at various points along the way to comment on how different head coaches, big seasons and injury-prone campaigns impacted UNC’s SP+ rating.
The chart begins in 1972, which happens to be one of the UNC Football program’s best seasons in recent history. Those 1972 Tar Heels lost just one game - a road matchup against No. 5 Ohio State. The team ended the season ranked 12th in the AP Poll. But the good times did not last, as three seasons later, the Tar Heels finished the season 3-7-1. The Dooley era finished strong with an 8-3-1 campaign in 1977, though.
Dick Crum provided something that no Tar Heel football head coach has seemingly accomplished since he left office - a consistently good football team. From 1979 to 1983, UNC won at least eight games and even won four straight bowl games until the streak ended in the 1983 Gator Bowl, when UNC lost to Florida State 28-3.
The program slipped back into a pattern of highs and lows after that. Mack Brown started off at a very low spot in 1988 and 1989 with his infamous back-to-back 1-10 seasons. But, as this chart shows, he did a great job of building up the program into a national power. Brown’s teams consistently got better until he built the program into a powerhouse at the end of the 1990s. He then left for Texas and you can fill in the rest.
The Torbush and Bunting eras were defined by their up and down seasons. It’s hard for many fanbases to stomach such highs and such lows. Thus, it’s not surprising that they had some of the shorter coaching tenures in North Carolina football’s modern history.
One of the surprises of this chart comes when taking a closer look at the Butch Davis era. That famous 2010 team is upheld as one of the great What-If teams of UNC Football history - what if that team, with all that NFL talent, hadn’t run into all those NCAA allegations and suspensions and instead been allowed to compete at full strength all season? The team that did take the field that year in 2010 went 8-5, but didn’t end up as the best team of the Davis era according to SP+. That honor went to the 2008 ballclub that also went 8-5.
Finally, the chart shows all the highs and lows of the Fedora era. It’s worth underscoring here - in the heart of the NCAA scandal, Larry Fedora took the Tar Heels to the highest SP+ rating that the team has ever had between now and 1972. Those 2015 Tar Heels famously won the ACC Coastal Division and competed in the ACC Championship game against Clemson and against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Fans remember how both of those games went, but the team still finished with a very high SP+ ranking. But Fedora’s ball club fell and fell hard in subsequent seasons, a fall that was covered in Argyle Report’s Mack Brown and the Return of Hope article.
Now, Mack Brown inherits a ball club with a much higher floor than the group he began with his first time around. That Tar Heel team had the lowest SP+ rating of any UNC team since 1972; the 2019 Tar Heels are much more middle of the pack. But look at the transformation and ascension that the program went through under Mack Brown around. A similar climb 20 years later would take UNC from a middle of the pack program and turn them into a national power.
I think my biggest takeaways from looking at this chart is just how hard it has been to establish consistency for the Tar Heel football program. UNC has had some amazing highs over the last 40 or so years, but the challenge for Mack Brown’s staff going forward will be seeing if they can establish a program that can compete every single season for an ACC Coastal Division title. This chart also puts into perspective what Larry Fedora was able to accomplish in Chapel Hill. His early seasons hold up as some of the best football teams that Chapel Hill has seen.
I encourage you to check out collegefootballdata.com for yourself to explore the visualization tool and compare UNC’s history to that of other ACC programs like Duke, N.C. State or even South Carolina.
Header photo by Smith Hardy