UNC didn't just lose to ECU on Saturday, the Heels were throttled giving up almost 800 yards of total offense and 70 points. Both those totals are records for a Tar Heel opponent. Adding the extra layer of this loss coming at the hands of an in-state rival from a lower-tiered conference and the reactions are going to be strong. East Carolina is certainly the better team and while losing is highly undesirable, losing while being competitive at least provides some measure of comfort. Getting skulldrug across the field for a second straight season to a school you've enjoyed some historical dominance over makes people crazy.
The issue is there are no simple answers or quick fixes. The current state of UNC's program is owed to multiple factors none of which can easily be separated out. While people view citing inexperience and scholarship limits as excuses, those are indeed legitimate factors that have a real world impact on the program. Larry Fedora's initial seven year contract was a nod to the time involved and difficulty of overcoming NCAA sanctions. There was an expectation from the start that the scholarship limits would deal a crippling blow to the speed at which Fedora could rebuild the program. After all, UNC was being penalized and as a general rule penalties involve some level of pain or else they aren't really effective as a deterrent.
It is important to understand the actual impact of scholarship limits. Larry Fedora has signed three classes with the NCAA penalties in place. That means he has been limited to just 20 players per year instead of 25. While five players per season might not seem like a big deal, it takes multiple classes to build and properly maintain a full depth chart. Three years of penalties means UNC is missing 15 players it could have recruited and signed. Not being able to bring in those 15 players becomes a serious problem when attrition is factored in. Being limited to 80 total scholarships is five bodies UNC doesn't have during any given season and those slots get filled with walk-ons. It leaves the roster much thinner, doesn't permit redshirting players for development and any attrition requires a lot of patchwork.
Compounding the personnel issue that stems from scholarship limitations is the fact UNC has gone through a PR nightmare and three coaches in three years. That has played havoc with not just one recruiting cycle but multiple ones something we discussed last season. The coaching transition also created higher than normal levels of attrition occurring while UNC was limited in the number of players the program could bring in. All of this is recipe for creating a thinner roster. Without quality depth, there is little choice but to play certain players even if they aren't capable and impossible to withhold playing time to correct poor play.
As for the youth, this cannot be overstated in how much it matters. UNC, at present, has 10 seniors on the roster. Two of those are kicker Thomas Moore and punter Tommy Hibbard. There are 17 offensive linemen on the roster. None of them are seniors and just five are juniors. Of those five only three are seeing significant time and one of those, Landon Turner, is injured. The other linemen are sophomores, redshirt freshmen or freshmen. Looking across UNC's various units, there is a similar pattern making this a very young team. There is talent there but not nearly enough depth or experience to really bring everything together.
The N&O's Luke DeCock noted that "ECU is everything UNC was supposed to be" which is true on some level but ignores the present reality. ECU fielded 19 juniors and seniors in their starting 22 on offense and defense. Ruffin McNeill is in his fifth season having taken over a program that was in better shape than UNC's when Fedora showed up. If this kind of thing is still happening in two years, then firing coaches wouldn't be such a crazy idea. At present it seems a bit short-sighted and premature.
All of this is to say that fixing what's wrong with UNC football is going to take time. That's not something Tar Heel fans want to hear given the fact that "patience" has become a profane word as it pertains to the football team. People are tired of waiting and rightfully so. The 11-win season of 1997 was a long time ago. Having endured Carl Torbush, John Buntin, underachievement under Butch Davis with the added bonus of NCAA troubles and a lost season under Everett Withers, people are tired of waiting.
Unfortunately, football programs don't turn on a dime. Until UNC reaches a point where the program has sufficiently recovered from the NCAA sanctions and hamstrung recruiting, begging for coaching changes is a pointless endeavor. First of all, who could UNC possibly get at this point in the season and secondly doing so would be highly disruptive in a season that isn't quite in a tailspin yet? UNC has yet to play an ACC game and the Coastal Division isn't exactly teeming with offensive world-beaters. Rocking the boat, despite the how cathartic is may be for the fans, doesn't actually resolve UNC's various problems.
With still nine games and the full ACC slate ahead, there is still hope though pessimism is perfectly understandable. Whatever happens, everyone just needs to sit tight because for all we know this may simply be the darkest hour right before the dawn.