What If the Worst Heisman Trophy Winner Played for the Worst Carolina Football Team?

I have a habit of interpreting commercials literally. It's not that I don't understand what they're often trying to do — associate the product with humor and a sense of triumph that makes you just want to SPEND SPEND SPEND — I just get more entertainment out of taking them at face value. It's useful, too. For instance, every Bud Light commercial of the last fifteen years has had the same basic message: "Bud Light, the beer of people you want to punch in the throat™." Thus, I drink better beer.

You've probably seen EA's ad or the latest NCAA Football model, and if you haven't, it's conveniently embedded below the cut. Personally, I walk away with the message "Buy NCAA Football 13, and your unbalanced father will destroy for electronics in a fit of rage." I'm pretty confident that's not the takeaway EA would like. They're really excited about this whole "play any Heisman trophy winner on any team" feature, and to make sure nobody misses that fact, they've commissioned blog posts all across the SBNation network, asking the question, "Which Heisman trophy from another school do you wish played for your own?"

North Carolina, of course, has never had a Heisman trophy winner. Neither has any other school in the state, nor any player who grew up here. The only ACC winners are Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, both Seminoles, so there's really no winner who almost became a Tar Heel; no near misses. Of course, I could just take any recent winner and slot him into Chapel Hill, no matter how improbable. But then it just becomes another intellectual exercise with no real basis in reality, and those just bore me.

So if I'm going to do this, why not pick something no one else will ever write about? Don't give the Heels any of the titans of football history. No, what would happen if UNC instead had the most complained about Heisman winner in modern history? What if Carolina turned the team over to a young man named... Gino Torretta?

This was never a serious possibility, of course. Torretta was an excellent high school quarterback from Pinole, California. UNC was a struggling football team known, if anything, for its tailbacks, coached by a first-year coach named Mack Brown . I don't think even his silver tongue could have brought Torretta to Chapel Hill. But what the hell? Let's say he was a Jordan fan. Let's say a random road trip brought him to the Triangle, and he fell in love with the place. Let's ignore everything and just put him on the damn team.

UNC in 1988 was not good, to put it lightly. They finished 1-10, in a season that included home blowouts to Barry Switzer's Oklahoma (28-0) and N.C. State (48-3). The defense allowed 35.5 points a game; although there was talent there — freshman defensive end Roy Barker would go on to have a nine-season NFL career — they were very young. The offense was a little better, but there's little chance Torretta wouldn't have been pressed into service immediately. The passing duties were split between junior Jonathan Hall, freshman Todd Burnett, and freshman Deems May, who would finish his career as a tight end (and going on to a future of writing inflammatory things and getting involved in Ponzi schemes). Torretta would be played from day one.

In Torretta's first season for Miami, as a redshirt freshman subbing for an injured Craig Erickson, he set a school record that still stands with 485 passing yards against San Diego State. I doubt he'd be that impressive early in Chapel Hill, where talented wide receivers were fe and far between. The guy getting most of the catches was Randy Marriott, a 5'11" senior. In this reality, he'd finish with 498 yards; Torretta could have probably improved that a bit. UNC lost four games by less than a touchdown and although all were high scoring affairs, you have to figure a better QB would keep the other team's offense off the field or turn a couple of field goals into touchdowns. So let's give the Heels three more wins, and push Mack Brown's inaugural record to 4-7.

1989 was another disastrous season for Carolina, with their second straight 1-10 record. Again, their quarterback situation was spotty, with Hall, Burnett, and freshman Chucky Burnette all taking turns. The wide receiver position was still pretty sparse with true freshman Randall Felton getting almost twice the catches as anyone else. This would be Felton's best season; despite playing in every game in his four-year career, he would never again top 300 yards a season. Again, Torretta can only do so much at this point, but UNC's defense is vastly improving, holding opponents to 27 points a game. Again, there are a lot of close games, and this season Carolina wasn't scoring very well at all. I see the Heels with Torretta winning games against Kentucky, Navy, Wake, Georgia Tech, and South Carolina (combined record 24-29-2). It's not enough to overcome two of UNC's biggest losses, a 40-6 beating by N.C. State at Carter-Finley and a 41-0 home loss in Steve Spurrier's last game at Duke. However, a bowl-eligible 6-4 Tar Heel team playing their arch-rival would probably put up a better showing, and definitely wouldn't have been held scoreless. Is Spurrier still a jackass who takes a team photo under the Kenan scoreboard? Probably, but it's not nearly as impressive a shot.

College football twenty years ago was a different place, and a 6-5 record wouldn't get the Heels a bowl game. In 1990, in fact, the Heels would go 6-4-1, and not play in the post-season. This was still a great improvement, especially on the defensive end, where teams were held to just under 17 points a game. At this point, Torretta should have come into his own. In his first starting season (1991) as a junior, he'd throw for 3095 yards for an undefeated Miami team that would win the national championship. (This would arguably be a large reason for why he'd win the Heisman the following year after not really improving.) More importantly for our purposes, however, 1990 was the first year under Brown that the Tar Heels had offensive weapons whose names you'd recognize today. Natrone Means led the team in rushing as a freshman with 849 yards rushing and 229 yards receiving while redshirt freshman Corey Holliday would lead the team in receiving with 488 yards. Both would go on to professional careers; in fact 14 future NFL draft picks were on the field that season. Add in Torretta, and things get really interesting.

First of all, Mack Brown gets their first win over N.C. State (in actuality, the Heels lose 12-9). The famed 13-13 tie against Georgia Tech, the one mark on the Yellow Jackets championship season, becomes a definite loss, giving the Colorado team of the Fifth Down Game sole possession of the national championship, causing football fans everywhere to lose their minds. And I'm going to go ahead and give the Heels a win over Virginia, a game they lost 24-10, but was the defensively-suspect Cavaliers only win in their last five games. The end result is a 10-2 UNC team that goes 7-1 in conference, setting up a three-way tie for the conference championship with Clemson and Georgia Tech. This certainly gets Carolina a bowl game — Tech played in the Citrus that year and the Tigers the Hall of Fame, so it may not have been the creates game, but it definitely puts the nation on notice, and Mack Brown's recruiting gets a little easier.

Which brings us to 1991, and what would be Torretta's senior season in this imaginary story. In real life, Caroina goes 7-4 and still flies under the radar — they wouldn't really make their mark until the upset win over Southern Cal in the 1993 season opener. But in this story, coming off a 10-2 season with Means and Holliday, as well as Felton, May and a freshman fullback named William Henderson? We might have something.

The first question becomes, is it enough of a something to overcome UNC's first loss of the season, where they fell 24-7 against State in Carter-Finley? (The Wolfpack would not beat the Heels at home again until 2003.) I'm going to say yes. UNC was hurting at QB that year, alternating between Burnette, Burnett and freshman Jason Stanicek. (Mack Brown was always more in love with rotating quarterbacks than any man had a right to be.) If he could instead settle on a 3,000 yard passer in Torretta? It's a different ball game. And they would have no problem on the road against Virginia (actual result, a 14-9 loss). This would put UNC at 6-0 and heading to Atlanta to meet a 3-4 Georgia Tech.

That's a tougher call. UNC loses again due to poor offense, falling 35-14. Does Torretta change this? I've already invested enough in this scenario, so why not? The Tar Heels continue to roll, setting up a November 9th matchup with Clemson. UNC is 8-0, and the Tigers 6-1-1. The Tigers are just beginning to click, after struggling to score early in the season. After a 27-12 loss to Georgia and a 20-20 tie aginat Virginia, they will score and average of 32 points the rest of the regular season. In actuality, UNC would put up the best defensive performance in that stretch, losing 21-6. Would Gino Torretta be held to six points? He would not. He threw for 39 touchdowns in his two starting seasons with the Hurricanes. I think this is a likelier win than Georgia Tech's, and that Carolina would roll on to an undefeated regular season.

And then what? Two other teams finished without a loss that year, Washington and Miami. Would Miami still be undefeated without Torretta? Fans of Bryan Fortay thinks so. Washington was of course obligated to the Rose Bowl, where they would play and beat the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines 34-14. Miami would go to the Orange Bowl, in part because they wanted to avoid playing Florida in the Sugar. There they would meet #11 Nebraska, while the Gators would play (and lose) to #18 Notre Dame. The ACC champion was obligated to the Citrus Bowl (#14 Cal beat #13 Clemson that year, 37-13). Would Miami, free to choose their own bowl game, duck Carolina to play Nebraska? Probably. So no Gino Torretta vs. alternate universe Miami for us. Instead, the season ends in utter chaos; three undefeated teams.

UNC gets few if any first place votes; they don't have the schedule cred that Miami or Washington does. Carolina fans lament for generations the undefeated Tar Heel team denied a chance at the college football crown. John Swofford, athletic director in Chapel Hill, remembers the slight keenly, and immediately begins work towards some sort of playoff system, which is finally put into effect in 1999, when the Rose Bowl relents. Torretta does not win the Heisman, which still goes to Desmond Howard. He remains the most beloved quarterback in UNC history, and goes on to be remembered as modestly successful NFL quarterback, mostly in backup roles. Carolina, on the strength of the recruiting after the past two seasons, enters into a fierce duel with conference newcomer Florida State through most of the nineties, with UNC winning three conference championships to the Seminoles' five over the rest of the decade. Mack Brown still leaves for Texas in 1997, and UNC slips a bit along with the rest of the conference in the new century, but remains a constant challenger for the conference title behind coach Carl Torbush and his young quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator, Gino Torretta. Torretta takes over the reins of the program following Torbush's retirement for health reasons in 2011; the Tar Heel faithful now await the chance to see what he can do in his second full year running the program.

You know, or not.

Thanks for making it all the way through this. I couldn't have written it without some heavy lifting from this site, and did you know there are some people who are really, really, bitter about the way the 1991 season turned out? And of course, this post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13., thanks to whom I now no more about Gino Torretta than I ever expected to. Check out the video for the game they'd rather you be playing below. I need a beer.

EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EASPORTS)




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