Photo courtesy Kimberly Rivers
Two Decembers ago I left my seat in the Bank of America stadium press box to walk to the field because I thought the game was over. The 2015 ACC Championship was ticking away and UNC trailed Clemson by 15 points with 2:15 left on the clock.
As I entered the tunnel and felt the grass under my shoes, I was welcomed by a roar from the fans – not for me, but Ryan Switzer, as he scampered into the end zone from 17 yards out on the other end of a Marquise Williams pass to make it an eight-point game. His touchdown made it a one possession affair and opened one of the greatest what-if doors in the history of UNC football. Immediately it led to Freeman Jones’ onside kick and a very questionable offsides penalty. Eventually it lead to a disappointing three-game losing streak, including a loss in Carolina’s Russell Athletic Bowl game to No. 17 Baylor and its 2016 season opener against No. 18 Georgia.
Many Tar Heel fans said then that reality was setting in on Larry Fedora’s program. In that glorious year of 2015, where UNC won the ACC’s Coastal Division and was a yellow-flag-kept-tucked-in-a-pocket away from really messing with the new College Football Playoff system, they instead buoyed back to normalcy. After the opening loss in 2015 to South Carolina, the Tar Heels sprung off an 11-game winning streak against unranked opponents and followed it up with a three-game losing streak against top-20 teams that left more questions then answers. The reality, many argued, was that UNC was good enough to beat the mediocre teams on its schedule and even make a run at top-tier programs, but couldn’t seem to take the next step on the NCAA football ladder.
A season ago, almost every emotion possible was felt by those watching the Tar Heels football team. There was hope in Mitch Trubisky, doubt after Georgia, joy in Bug Howard’s catch, insanity after Weiler’s kick, bewilderment after a loss to Duke, anger after another one two weeks later at home to N.C. State, and confusion after a bowl game loss to Stanford.
After 2016 was said and done, most fans first question was, what is Tar Heel football? And just how good are they?
It’s a fair criticism to say that UNC football has been very Jekyll and Hyde in nature. In its last two seasons, the Tar Heels are 0-4 in their first and last games of the season while being 19-4 in the games in between. They’ve had the highest of highs: Weiler chopping his way through Tallahassee, and the lowest of lows: a waterlogged loss to Virginia Tech ending hopes of a 2016 Coastal repeat. And even during the most consistent run in program history, that 11-game winning streak, it felt like it could all come crashing down at any moment.
Now, with almost its entire offensive weaponry gone, the Tar Heels, who are still trying to answer the questions from two years prior, are left with a depth chart of new names.
You will not hear any discussion of a quarterback going in the top five of the NFL draft. You will not laugh at jokes about Fedora not giving the ball to Elijah Hood on the goal line. You will not see Ryan Switzer back deep to return, Mack Hollins hovering over his defender, or the hair resting on the shoulder pads of Nick Weiler. They have all moved on.
Instead of answering the questions left unchecked, this Tar Heel team has already added more. Who will be behind center? Who’s going to catch the football? Can the veteran defense capitalize without Gene Chizik? What are this team’s goals and expectations they’ve set for themselves?
I think it’s fair to separate this team from the previous two in your memory bank. I will remember the last two seasons as teams that accomplished great feats, but left me pulling at my hair. There is nothing that this 2017 campaign can do that will fix that. And I don’t think it’s fair to use this team as a bookend for the successes and failures of previous teams.
But as fans and media alike put new names with faces and faces with numbers, it’s important to remember that this team has no interest in answering last year’s questions. They’re here to put their own stamp on Tar Heel football and there needs to be a resetting of expectations in the process.
It’s time for Tar Heel fans to quit talking about the what-ifs of years gone and look ahead to what is on the table now.
With Louisville, Notre Dame and Miami all coming to Kenan Stadium, there may be no visions of sweeping ACC these foes and contending for the Coastal; it’s just probably not realistic. Instead, this year should be about development and finding nuggets of promise in what could possibly be a year where the Tar Heels don’t play a game in December or January.
It’s time to turn the page and begin a new chapter when it comes to Larry Fedora’s tenure at UNC.