It’s been all talk for so long.
Ever since Mack Brown was hired in late November of last year, UNC fans have heard about how the program will return to prominence.
They heard about how Brown would right the ship and win games again.
They heard how Carolina would become a dominant recruiting force in the state and beyond.
They heard how UNC would compete for ACC championships and premier bowl games.
They heard it all.
And the only evidence they had was that Brown, a 68-year-old Hall of Famer who hadn’t been on the sidelines since 2013, had what it takes. He won a national championship, after all.
But that was almost 15 years ago, and at a different program.
So it was fair to be skeptical of the hype surrounding a new regime that had yet to see the field once.
Well, on Saturday, for at least one game, the hype was real, and Mack really was back.
UNC’s 24-20 come-from-behind win against South Carolina in Charlotte validated the Brown hire.
It may seem premature to say that after one win, but the team showed a fight in the comeback that UNC had not shown in previous years in the Larry Fedora era and beyond.
When South Carolina’s first two drives, aided by missed tackles, ended in a field goal and touchdown, it seemed to be more of the same from an undisciplined Tar Heel defense.
When Carolina fell behind 20-9 in the 3rd quarter in front of a pro-Gamecock crowd, it seemed all but over.
Even after the Tar Heels took their first lead of the game with 8:26 left, it seemed unlikely that the result would hold.
But UNC’s defense forced a 3-and-out, and Myles Wolfolk picked off USC quarterback Jake Bentley in consecutive drives, and Chazz Surratt sacked Bentley to force a fumble and end the game.
And it was over, and UNC had won its first season opener against a Power 5 school since 1997.
And the hype was real.
“You can’t fake it,” running back Michael Carter said of the excitement surrounding the program. “You can’t fake real.”
You couldn’t fake Sam Howell’s poise and playmaking either.
Despite being the first true freshman quarterback in Carolina history to start a season opener, Howell made clutch throws all second half after UNC opened its playbook en route to a 15-of-24 performance for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Howell persevered behind a young offensive line that gave up 3 sacks and plenty more hits.
“He got hit too many times and he just kept getting up,” Carter said. “He’ll have some ice on tonight. We all will.”
So UNC will lick its wounds and move on to next week, where Miami (0-1) awaits as the home opener in a primetime game.
“This game is over with,” Wolfolk said. “We’re going to enjoy it now, but it’s over with. It’s time to go 1-0 next week.”
That’s the reality of college football. No matter what happens this game, you must be ready for the next Saturday.
But maybe UNC will enjoy this one a little bit longer.
Because the hype is real.
Header photo by Smith Hardy