Everyone remember after the ECU game when the sky was falling and Larry Fedora was officially on some kind of seat that was getting warmer? Then UNC lost to Miami in part because someone couldn't call a timeout on a key 3rd and 1 play and the Hurricanes ultimately went on to win the game? Fedora can't coach! These guys are awful! TRE BOSTON!!!!!!!!
Good times....good times.
Now just a few scant weeks later the season is not looking so bleak. UNC is starting to show up in bowl projections again. The Heels are 4-5 and sitting 3-3 in the Coastal Division. That last one was the most shocking since I hadn't spent much time looking at the division standings until Saturday night when it was flashed on the screen during the Virginia Tech-Miami game. There was UNC at 3-3 in the ACC and it dawned on me that had the Tar Heels gotten one stop versus Miami they would be 4-2 and tied for second. So what exactly has changed in the past three weeks to turn what some were thinking was going to be a pure disaster to the Heels possibly qualifying for a bowl game?
First and foremost the schedule got easier. I am not sure this can be underscored enough nor should it take away from what the Tar Heels have done. UNC went 1-5 in the first half of the season and played only one bad team. South Carolina is probably going to win ten games. East Carolina could win Conference USA. Georgia Tech is 5-2 in ACC play and Virginia Tech is a spot behind them at 4-2. Despite setbacks in the past two weeks, Miami is still a good team although not the top ten material the polls postulated the Hurricanes were. UNC went 1-5 against a schedule where 2-4 was considered reasonable since three of those contests were on the road.
The problem with the perception of this team was the loss to East Carolina was a nightmare to end all nightmares. The Tar Heel defense was as bad as it possibly could be in that game leading to an epic beatdown at the hands of an in-state rival. At the time, that game felt like it defined this team and panic swept through the fan base like the flu at an elementary school. Looking at it now, in the context of the season, it was an outlier. UNC was a decent team in the 0-3 ACC start losing by a total of 22 points with two touchdowns called back for a penalties and Miami blocking a FG attempt and taking it for six. In other words, the Heels were right there but couldn't get over the hump against slightly better teams. The margin of error was too thin and the Heels paid for it with close losses but losses nonetheless.
Enter the slightly worse teams onto the schedule in the form of Boston College, NC State and Virginia. I am not saying UNC's play hasn't improved in some facets because it has. It also helps when the schedule takes a turn in this direction and as anyone who watches sports knows winning cures everything. In this case winning also breeds confidence and confidence can take on a life of its own in helping a struggling team to make that one extra play. This is most prevalent on the defensive side for a unit that was constantly under fire for surrendering big plays and an inability to get off the field. Suddenly that same unit is seeing itself getting crucial stops when needed. For a unit that felt as though it lost the Miami game because it couldn't top a game winning drive, getting off the field repeatedly against NC State while protecting a one score lead can produce a huge psychological lift.
It is important to note players do not look at teams the same way fans and observers do. Players don't care if NC State or Virginia are viewed as "bad" teams. What's important to them is they made plays, in some instances clutch plays and the team won. Doing it against a lesser caliber team is an important step towards doing it against a better team. That is why wins against bad teams still have value because one must learn to crawl before he can walk.
Another element in all of this is yes, the younger players have started to come into their own and produce. As noted in this piece from a few weeks back, UNC has been in the midst of some incredible but routine attrition that often impacts a program dealing with the fallout of NCAA sanctions and a coaching change. Much of the top shelf talent was gone from the experienced classes and some players who were there didn't seem to be stepping up. Generally speaking the recruiting was just catching up from the coaching change. This resulted in some gaps in the talent and quality of the depth.
Now some of those younger players are making an impact. UNC has individuals like Dominique Green, who is a freshman walk-on, putting in a solid effort in the secondary with three INTs and a pick six to his credit. Ryan Switzer finally got someone to not hold on a punt return for a touchdown. You have veteran players like Kareem Martin starting to play at a high level, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks which helps the secondary. The offensive line is still a mess and the running game needs to be more effective. However the Tar Heel receivers are making the UNC passing attack more effective and the offense is moving in the right direction.
Usually when we talk about "perfect storms" we talk about the coming together of negatives to create an epic disaster. In this case this is a perfect storm of generally positive nature. UNC's schedule eased up and the team was able to get their collective legs under them some. Now the Tar Heels will see the schedule stiffen up slightly with a road game at Pittsburgh and home games against Old Dominion and a resurgent Duke team. With the Tar Heels needing two wins to be bowl eligible the remaining slate provides an appropriate test. Can this Tar Heel team use the confidence and experienced gained from the last three wins to get over the hump against a pair of good ACC teams with bowl eligibility on the line?
Whatever happens, there chances are far better than they looked a month ago.