When North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour announced that the NCAA’s investigation into potential improper contact with agents had spawned a second, separate probe into potential academic misconduct, he cautioned -- twice -- not to jump to any conclusions when names started to trickle out.
But with Marvin Austin already suspended for violating team rules, NCAA punishment handed down to Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and this morning’s announcement that 12 players will not play in Saturday’s game against Louisiana State and three more aren’t traveling to Atlanta but may play, let’s jump to a couple conclusions.
The first, and most obvious, is that as far as this one game is concerned, this is the worst-case scenario for North Carolina, the one the Tar Heels have feared since the investigation began.
To begin what was supposed to be a potentially BCS-worthy season with a nationally televised ABC game against a marquee opponent, the Tar Heels are guaranteed to be missing eight of the 23 players on their most recent defensive depth chart, including five starters, and those numbers could rise to 11 of 23 and eight starters.
North Carolina’s three leading rushers from last year are all out. The top six returning tacklers are all potentially out.
The big winners, other than LSU? Johnny White and T.J. Yates. White, a little-used senior back -- 21 carries in the past two seasons -- figures to get a chance to show his stuff, while the oft-maligned Yates will have the opportunity to carry the team on his shoulders with both the running game and defense decimated.
It’s impossible to say whether Austin, wide receiver Greg Little, cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney and defensive ends Robert Quinn and Michael McAdoo were declared ineligible because of their involvement with the agent prong of the probe or the academic prong, although Austin and Little are both known to have been interviewed by NCAA investigators.
It’s safe to say that the absence of Quinn, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the country, could be a near-fatal blow against a tough SEC opponent when combined with the loss of both starting cornerbacks and starting strong safety Da’Norris Searcy, who is in the group being withheld from the game, and the potential loss of linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter and free safety Deunta Williams, who are the three players hoping to be cleared by game time.
Throw in the loss of the primary running-back tandem -- both Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston are being held out of the game -- and the Tar Heels are definitely in a tough spot against the Tigers.
There’s always the possibility the Tar Heels who remain can rally around each other and pull off a stirring victory. More likely, the short-handed defense and pass-heavy offense will be easy pickings for LSU.
As for Dareus, his punishment may offer some insight into what the players involved in the agent investigation may face if also found in violation. Dareus was issued a two-game suspension and $1787 repayment -- donated to charity -- for his role in the scandal. Based on NCAA guidelines, Dareus’ suspension should have been four games, but he was given a reduced sentence in return for cooperating with the probe.
Austin and Little, the two UNC players known to have been interviewed, may be serving the first game of a four-game suspension Saturday if they committed infractions similar to Dareus. (Whether the other four players declared ineligible are also involved in the agent investigation is unknown at this point.) The Dareus decision is the first indication of what kind of discipline they may face if found to be in violation.
Four games: LSU, Georgia Tech, Rutgers, East Carolina. That’s no way to start what was supposed to be a breakthrough season.