The 2013 football season began with a lot of promise for the UNC football team, coming off a share of first place in the Coastal Division in 2012. The Tar Heels returned a veteran quarterback, exciting skill players, and an experienced secondary. However against a difficult early schedule, Carolina stumbled to a 1-5 record and it appeared disaster could be around the corner. But UNC rallied to win five of its last six games and capped off the late-season roll with a dismantling of Cincinnati in the bowl game.
While 7-6 is just about the best possible outcome given the 1-5 start, it is still easy to wonder "what if" about this season. So with that in mind, here is a look back on a year full of "what ifs":
What if the defense had been healthy all year?
This may be the most underreported theme of UNC's season. Injuries and attrition took their toll on the Tar Heel defense, from the beginning of camp right through the bowl game. Though talented at some individual positions, Carolina's defense was paper-thin, especially at linebacker. Walk-on Jeff Schoettmer became one of the team's leading tacklers, while tight end Jack Tabb was moved to defense early in the season to provide some sorely needed depth. It took half the season for the defense to get it together given the lack of depth and young players gaining experience.
What if the schedule weren't so front-loaded?
Much was made of the difficulty of UNC's early schedule. Carolina opened on the road at a top-10 team in South Carolina and also made trips to Atlanta and Blacksburg in their first five games. The Heels played the top three contenders in the Coastal Division in their first three ACC games. For a team looking to find its identity, that was not a recipe for success.
On the other hand, the schedule was difficult no matter how the games were placed. Eleven of UNC's 13 opponents finished the year with winning records (only Virginia and NC State did not) and 9 of 12 regular season opponents made bowls (Despite being 8-4, Old Dominion was ineligible for a bowl in their transition to FBS). The combined record of the six teams that beat Carolina was 54-24. UNC lost its four ACC games by a combined 24 points.
What if the non-conference schedule was easier?
UNC went 2-2 against its non-conference schedule, but who could have predicted that SCAR (11-2), Middle Tennessee (8-5), ECU (10-3), and Old Dominion (8-4) would be a combined 37-14? All but Old Dominion went to bowl games. I imagine you would be hard-pressed to find a team with a winning record that played a tougher non-conference slate. Just compare that group to the two teams who played in the ACC Championship game: Duke (NC Central, Memphis, Troy, and Navy, combined 23-27), and Florida State (Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho, and Florida, combined 19-30; FCS Bethune-Cookman was 10-3, while the three FBS teams were 9-27). Or how about Miami, who jumped out to a 7-0 start but only played two teams who would finish with winning records (one of which was UNC) and their non-conference opponents would compile a putrid 13-35 mark on the season.
Since the game vs. East Carolina is legislatively mandated, the only other choice was to find a lemon to replace SCAR. Another win there would have given UNC eight wins, which has been the ceiling of the past 15 years.
What if the ECU and ODU games were switched on the schedule?
This is something that I started pondering as I sat in Kenan Stadium in late November, watching the Tar Heels explode for 80 points against Old Dominion while ECU struggled to put away an NC State team that would finish 3-9. The East Carolina game was a perfect storm of crapitude for the Tar Heels, who underestimated the Pirates and were taken behind the woodshed in what was likely the lowest point of the season for UNC. But by late November, Carolina had figured out how to win and ECU was not playing its best football in the final two weeks of the regular season. You can't help but wonder if the result would have been the same if UNC and ECU had met then. And even if the result had been the same, the Pirates would likely have not whipped UNC as they did in September.
For that matter, you could say the same about Virginia and Virginia Tech, given that VT lost 3 of its last 5 in the regular season. UNC would have likely stood a better chance against Virginia in early October with Marquise Williams making his first start and then faced a slumping Hokie team in November when UNC had finally gotten it together.
What if Bryn Renner had remained healthy?
Well, it's hard to say since UNC only lost one game after Renner was lost for the season. Fortunately Carolina didn't have to rely on its passing game down the stretch. I will say this, however: it would have been great to have had Renner's passing on the final drive against Duke and down two points. But take nothing away from Williams, who had already adjusted to the two-QB rotation and stepped in admirably once Renner was out.
What if UNC held on to the 4th quarter leads it had at home vs. Miami and Duke?
Ah, this is the most bitter point on this list. The simple answer is that UNC would have been in the ACC Championship Game and it would have likely been the Tar Heels in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.
Carolina had the lead versus Miami and had the Hurricanes pinned inside their 10-yard line before giving up a game-winning touchdown. That game will forever be known for the 3rd-and-1 debacle, but the fact remains that even after that if UNC's defense can get off the field within 50 yards, the Heels likely win that game. Likewise, with Carolina nursing a late lead against Duke, Tre Boston dropped a sure interception that would have likely shut the door on the Blue Devils.
In spite of the "what ifs", UNC still finished the season with much to build on. The emergence of the freshmen and sophomores, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, gives a lot of hope for the future. The defense will have to find a way to shore up, and the recent defection of Russell Bodine leaves only Landon Turner as the only experienced upperclassman on the offensive line. Still, it is likely Carolina will begin the 2014 season with as much optimism as there was in 2013. We can only hope 2014 is not an encore of what might have been.