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Where I Come From: My All-Time Favorite UNC Team

This is the second of a week-long series of posts sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.

I'm not sure exactly what the logo above the title means by the "'Where I Come From' Room." In my head, I picture something white and padded, with bloggers wandering back and forth in straitjackets of team-apropriate colors. Oh, and the guy in orange speaking a lot more than I am.

Let's leave my metaphorical room and move on to the topic at hand: my favorite UNC team. I'll drop the "all-time" qualifier, since I reserve the right to prefer a future team, or to discover something about an older than one that sways my vote. It won't be the 1912 team, though. They lost to Virginia 66-0, a score immortalized in the rafters of Hill Hall by the construction worker who scrawled it there. You're dead to me, 1912. 

For the moment at least, my favorite squad is the 1996 one. To understand that, you had to know the minds of Carolina fans before that season. Beginning in 1990, Mack Brown had slowly dug out from his back-to-back one win seasons, and had improved through the first half of the decade. The first winning season came that year, the first bowl game two years after that, and 1993 had brought the Pigskin Classic win over Southern California and the first ten-win season. 1994 was a slight regression, but still ended with the Sun Bowl game against Texas, and everyone was pumped up for a great 1995 season. Then the opening game against Syracuse introduced us all to some guy named Donovan McNabb, and Carolina never recovered, limping to a 6-5 season topped by a bowl game UNC only reached by a skin-of-their teeth win over N.C. State on Thanksgiving weekend. UNC had peaked, and no one as expecting much from the 1996 team, especially since they opened with Clemson and then had to travel to Syracuse to meet McNabb again.

UNC started the season unranked, facing #25 Clemson who had a 9-1 record against the Heels in the last ten years. And Carolina just destroyed them, 45-0. The Tigers were held to 91 yards, their worst showing since 1964. Then they went to New York and got revenge on the ninth-ranked, then-Orangemen and McNabb. They followed that by knocking off Georgia Tech, setting up a meeting with second-ranked, undefeated Florida State. 

The 1997 FSU-UNC game gets more hype, but the 1996 meeting was by far the better showing for the Heels. Florida was the only other team that year to hold the Seminoles under 30 points, and no one shut this team down like UNC. FSU's three scores came on Tar Heel mistakes, two blocked punts turned into field goals and a fumbled interception by Dre' Bly at UNC's 11 that got Warrick Dunn a touchdown. Though Carolina would drop to 15th, they won five straight, averaging 41 points a game to climb back to sixth in time for a trip to Charlottesville to face unranked UVa.

I can't describe the feeling on campus that November; it's the most excited I've ever seen Chapel Hill over football. An Orange Bowl trip was all but assured, with FSU mandated by the Bowl Coalition to play a championship game. With Duke (0-8) and UVa (6-3) remaining, this looked to be a very good month. And with a 17-3 lead in the fourth with the ball on UVa's five, the season was all but assured.

And this is why I like this team; it know pain unlike few others. Because with that lead, Chris Keldorf threw an end zone pass towards Octavius Barnes tat was instead snatched down by Antwan Harris and returned 100 yards for a touchdown. UNC completely melted down, and lost 20-17. The recovered to beat winless Duke, and had a great showing in the Gator Bowl beating West Virginia, but the team with the most promise in fifteen years finished ranked tenth and mostly forgotten on the national stage. There's something about that I just found poetic. That team probably sent more players to the pros than any since, but they remain removed from the bowl game they thought they had. The following year's team would go 11-1, but there wasn't that same atmosphere, of anticipation. Thefans had been burned by that point, and always stayed at arms' length. No, the 1996 team is the one that everybody truly loved, and it's my favorite team at Carolina.