No football team can easily sustain the loss of a player like Kelvin Bryant, the spectacular North Carolina tailback who was averaging 173 yards per game and led the nation with 15 touchdowns after just three games. So when Bryant was sidelined with an injury early in the fourth contest, many thought it spelled the end of a promising season.
Instead the Tar Heels restructured their offense along more diversified lines and proved that they had enough ability to overcome even this sort of adversity. Now after eight weeks they boast a 7-1 record, a Top 10 ranking in both national wire service polls, and a chance to move even higher this weekend when they play host to 8-0 Clemson in a game which will almost certainly determine the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Football teams of such formidable dimension may be common in other parts of the country, but not in the ACC, which is finally shedding its image as strictly a basketball league thanks in large measure to the accomplishments of Coach Dick Crum's program.
In 1979, his second year at Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels were 8-3-1, handed Pittsburgh its only loss, and bested Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Last season Carolina was 11-1, incurring its only loss at Oklahoma, defeating Texas 16-7 in the Bluebonnet Bowl, and earning a Top 10 ranking by both the Associated Press and United Press International.
This season the Tar Heels have picked up right where they left off. And with Clemson ranked No. 2 by the AP and No. 3 by UPI, it seems highly probable that the winner of Saturday's showdown clash will become only the second ACC team in 20 years to be invited to a major New Year's Day bowl.
The way North Carolina reacted to the loss of Bryant last month - both at the time and in subsequent games - is indicative of the talent, depth, and winning attitude that has developed at the school under Crum.
It was late in the first quarter of the Georgia Tech game when the talented junior left the field with a knee injury for which he underwent surgery the next day.
Not surprisingly, the team's immediate reaction was one of shock, and it sputtered for the rest of the first half. But the Tar Heels hadn't attained a niche among the nation's football elite on the strength of one individual's performance. Crum called on another high school All-America, Tyrone Anthony, to replace Bryant at tailback. Fullback Alan Burrus, who had become used to spending most of his afternoons clearing the way for Bryant, took over a larger share of the ball carrying load and rushed 18 times for 81 yards. Quarterback Rod Elkins, one of the NCAA's leading passers, ran for one touchdown and passed for a second. Meanwhile, one of the nation's premier defenses throttled the Tech attack, and unbeaten North Carolina went on to a 28-7 win.
Afterward, Crum said: ''I think we as coaches almost unconsciously were gravitating the offense toward Bryant. Now, what we will do is go back to . . . our more diversified offense.'' It was the statement of a man who knew he had the fire power, not to mention the strength on defense, to overwhelm most foes.
The Tar Heels crushed Wake Forest 48-10 the next week, Anthony leading the way with 224 yards rushing, then made it six in a row with a 21-10 victory over North Carolina State to rise to No. 3 in both polls. A loss to South Carolina finally broke the string, but they bounced back to beat Maryland 17-10 last weekend and are ranked No. 8 by AP and No. 9 by UPI heading into Saturday's big test.
As an indication of the team's depth, the starter at tailback against Maryland was Ethan Horton, a 6 ft. 4 in. former star high school quarterback who has switched positions at least for the moment. Anthony continues to play a fair amount too, of course, and Bryant has now returned to practice, with indications he may play soon.
Crum, the architect of North Carolina's newfound gridiron success, previously coached at Miami of Ohio, the so-called ''cradle of coaches'' that has produced the likes of Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, John Pont, and Bo Schembechler. In Crum's four years as the Redskins' head coach, his teams won the Mid-Atlantic Conference championship three times and were known for having one of the nation's consistently toughest defenses.
In 1974 Miami ranked 10th in the polls, a rare feat for a second-echelon football school.
A defensive specialist before becoming a head coach, Crum follows the standard dictum that a good defense and kicking game are the basis of a successful program. To date, his Carolina teams have given up an average of only two touchdowns per game, and have stood among the NCAA leaders in punting.
Talent, and plenty of it, is of course a prerequisite to creating and sustaining a powerful program. Without it, you don't survive the loss of a Kelvin Bryant or the graduation of a Lawrence Taylor, the linebacker who was the second pick (by the New York Giants) in last spring's National Football League draft.
In fact, the softspoken Crum, who comes across more like a mathematics professor (he holds a masters degree from Western Reserve in math) than a football coach, is a top-notch recruiter. A key selling point is the school's academic reputation, better than that of most major college sports powers. ''That was one of the things that influenced me when I came here,'' he said.
Tar Heel team members also play up their interest in academics. Yet, ironically, it was something else that doubtless attracted some of them, notably Kelvin Bryant. ''I never kept up with Carolina football,'' he said, ''but I always kept up with the basketball.''