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October 8, 2008

Carter a difference maker for North Carolina

Most teams go through an entire season without blocking a punt. That's because most teams don't have Bruce Carter.

North Carolina does. And he's a big reason the Tar Heels are 4-1 and have a realistic chance of winning the ACC title.

Carter, a sophomore linebacker, ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 27, and he's also returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown. But he's really distinguished himself as a punter's worst nightmare. Already this season, Carter has blocked four punts, including three in last week's 38-12 victory over Connecticut.

So what's the secret of his success?

"It's really no strategy to me," Carter said. "I go as hard as I can, create an alley, push through and get my hand in front of the ball.

"I try to use my athleticism and speed and get a jump on the ball (when it's snapped). It's just like coming out on a 40 (yard dash)."

Well, there might be more to it than that.

Every Tuesday, the Tar Heels' practice schedule includes a few minutes that focus on punt pressure. Carter said coach Butch Davis devises different rush schemes to try to enhance the chances of getting blocks.

Carter acknowledges the Heels look for holes in protection while watching tape of opponents. Notre Dame, whom the Tar Heels play host to Saturday, hasn't allowed a blocked punt this season. But Carter is confident he can get one. Confidence is in large supply in Chapel Hill now that the Tar Heels are 4-1 and have equaled last year's victory total.

"I think guys are more confident," Carter said. "People are starting to buy into things. The biggest thing is we're preparing well all through the week. We wake up at 5:30 or 6 and watch film before class. We watch a ton of film study, study, study.

"But Coach Davis told us we can't get complacent. Nobody gets an award for being 4-1. We're trying to be No. 1 and get to the ACC Championship Game."

That's not that far-fetched. The Tar Heels may be favored in each of their remaining seven games. That doesn't mean they will win them all, but it means they could be on the verge of an incredible turnaround after finishing 4-8 last season.

"We were young last year," Carter said. "But we've got a year of experience under our belts and we're more confident.

"We're a team to watch out for."

There are several reasons to beware of the Tar Heels. Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate are among the best receiving duos in the nation, and Tate ranks third in the country in total yards.

The defense has allowed an average of 17 points in the past four games. The Heels lead the nation with 12 interceptions and are among the nation's leaders in turnover margin (plus-6).

They're excellent on special teams, too. Tate averages 24.8 yards per punt return and has returned one for a touchdown. Heck, he might have more return touchdowns if Carter wouldn't block so many.

SEC-OND BEST?

It's blasphemy, but some observers actually have had the audacity to suggest the Big 12 has surpassed the SEC as the dominant conference this season.

Consider me among the blasphemers.

The Big 12 has five unbeaten teams, four teams (No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Missouri, No. 5 Texas and No. 7 Texas Tech) in the top 10 and two more in the top 20. That's half the league nationally ranked.

The main reason for the Big 12's strength is quarterback play. Eight Big 12 quarterbacks rank among the nation's top 20 in passing efficiency. Florida's Tim Tebow is the highest-ranked SEC quarterback, at 24th.

As a result of the premier quarterback play and wide-open offenses, the Big 12 boasts six of the nation's top-10 scoring offenses.

Scoring 50 points once was monumental. In the Big 12, it's almost mundane.

"Now you see 50 points scored in this league and nobody is surprised," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "Now, you're taking guys out of the game to keep from scoring 58."

The SEC is a better defensive league, though. And as the saying goes, "Defense wins championships."

But try telling that to Auburn, which has dropped from No. 9 to No. 20 in the polls primarily because of a struggling offense.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

If Texas upsets No. 1 Oklahoma on Saturday, the Longhorns might face another No. 1 next week. After OU, Texas faces Missouri, which is No. 2 in the coaches' poll. In fact, the Longhorns next four opponents are ranked Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Give Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown credit for supervising one of the more impressive turnarounds in the last two season. The Wildcats lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 7.8 points per game. The defense only gave up 10 points in last week's 17-14 loss to Alabama. Recall that in 2006, Kentucky allowed more than 30 points in five games and surrendered an average of 28.4 points per game. Brown was promoted to defensive coordinator before last season.

Imagine the chagrin of Tennessee fans. The Volunteers can't find a quarterback and Vanderbilt their neighbor to the west obviously has two after backup Mackenzi Adams replaced injured starter Chris Nickson and rallied the Commodores to a 14-13 victory over Auburn.

And on the subject of Vandy, don't expect the Commodores to fall into a trap against Mississippi State. Vanderbilt hasn't been to a bowl since 1982, and the players know that they can clinch bowl eligibility with a victory. The Commodores might not win, but not because they overlooked Mississippi State. And how strange is this to consider: Vanderbilt could be facing a trap game.

Three of the nation's four highest scoring teams reside in the state of Oklahoma. Tulsa, which has scored at least 56 points in each of the past four games, leads the nation with a 56.4 points per game average. Oklahoma State is third (52.6 points) and Oklahoma fourth (49.6). The second highest-scoring team is Missouri (53.4), which plays Oklahoma State on Saturday. Bombs away.

On the other end of the Big 12 spectrum, Kansas State has allowed 42 points per game in its past eight games against FBS (formerly known as Division I-A) opponents.

If Clemson falls at Wake Forest on Thursday night, the Tigers will be 3-3, and Vandy coach Bobby Johnson - a Clemson alum and a former Tigers assistant - will be looking really good to Tigers fans.

How about the job that Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett has done? The Seminoles lost two projected line starters before the season, yet are averaging 225.8 rushing yards per game. True, two games were against overmatched FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) opponents. But in the past two weeks, FSU rushed for 259 yards against Colorado and 281 against Miami.

Can anyone explain Maryland? The Terps lose to Middle Tennessee, then come back with consecutive victories over California, Eastern Michigan and Clemson. But just when they look like championship contenders in the ACC, they get shut out 31-0 by Virginia, which was coming off a 31-3 loss to Duke.

First-year defensive coordinator Ron English has made a remarkable impact at Louisville, which was abysmal defensively last season. Through four games, the Cardinals have had 10 touchdowns scored against them but only six have come against the defense. Two touchdowns came on fumble returns, one on an interception return and another on a punt return.

I wonder what all those who ripped Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen last season are saying now. Playing with a sore shoulder and behind an inept line, Clausen was an easy target for pass rushers and critics. But in the past two games, Clausen has thrown for 622 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Could it be he's just now coming into his own?

Olin Buchanan is a Heisman voter and a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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