This week's discussion focuses on asking if UNC has indeed turned a corner in football and the future of Larry Fedora.
Paul: Carolina is 9-1 with their longest winning streak in about 100 years. This is the first time the Heels have won 9 games since I was 2. Carolina played like they were one of the top teams in the country and dispatched Miami as easily as they did to Wake Forest. They're one win or a Pitt loss away from the Division Crown. This is obviously the best Carolina team I've ever seen, what do you two takeaway from the recent stretch?
Brian: As someone who remembers the team that serves as the "last time" for most of what UNC is doing in 2015 and has seen the desert journey since, it still feels surreal. This is a bit of kicked dog syndrome on my part but I am still convinced UNC is going to find a way to lose twice and Pitt will win twice to screw the Tar Heels out of the Coastal Division. Sure they would still have nine wins with a legitimate shot at 10 in the bowl game but it still be another "close but no cigar" for UNC football
Doc: I think the past two games have shown the versatility of UNC's offense. Duke decided to try to take away the run and make UNC beat them on the strength of Marquise Williams' arm, and Quise torched them for nearly 500 yards. Then Miami tried to take away the pass and Carolina put up nearly 300 yards rushing. The offense is who we thought they were. The defense has been more fortunate bending and not breaking given that Duke put up 500 yards of offense themselves and Brad Kaaya threw for over 300. Still, the thing for the past few years has been that if the defense could just be serviceable, UNC would be OK. This season they have been more than serviceable and UNC is 9-1.
Still I share the trepidation of a three-decades-plus Carolina football fan, seeing UNC knock on the door in the past only to not be able to seal the deal. In the early-80s and again in the mid-90s UNC was on the precipice of some special, breakout seasons only to be found not-ready-for-prime-time. I've gotta be honest, these last two games scare the pants off me just because of the weight attached to them. Beamer's last home game with UNC having a chance to clinch the division? And then heaven forbid UNC stub its toe in Blacksburg, because then comes a trip to Raleigh for State's Super Bowl, and a chance to deny UNC a trip to Charlotte? The Carter will already be lit; that would really have it turnt (am I getting the kids' lingo right, Paul?) Plus let's give credit to Pitt for not going quietly into that good night. After going 4-0 on the road, the Panthers have two winnable games at home with a chance to finish 7-1 in the league.
Paul: I know that these last two games will feature teams gunning for the Heels' head. But Carolina is still much better than both of these teams. Carolina should not have a problem in these two games and I believe that will best illustrate whether or not this team can put all these issues behind them. If Carolina plays like the better team in both games then that would be a real difference for UNC. If they want to be a contender then they need to act like one. If they come out of the gate and stomp Virginia Tech by more than Ohio State did, then isn't that the most powerful message they can send. Follow that up by a blowout over State the same place Clemson struggled and you really can send a national message. If that happens, does that show that they've turned the corner?
Brian: Well until Larry Fedora bolts to take the next job which leads me to an interesting question. How quickly does Bubba Cunningham move to see if he can sign Fedora to an extension? I assume Fedora will get a bonus for winning the division but should UNC win in Blacksburg on Saturday I would think Bubba and Larry are talking on Monday about what it will take to keep him happy. Bubba also has to know that the UNC job is a stepping stone so providing he can't keep Fedora does he have a plan to find someone who can keep the ball rolling and is Gene Chizik in the mix if that's the case?
Paul: I don't know that it's the automatic stepping stone that it used to be. Fedora has already turned down one SEC job (Tennessee) to stay in Chapel Hill. I think Fedora would be happy with a simple pay raise which would also include a large buy-out clause. Along these lines, are we sure it's a stepping stone and where would he go? I think if he believes he can recruit and make a run at the ACC title every year, in the playoff era, why not stay? He could have a shot at a conference title and playoff berth every year if he wins double digit games. He's working with a top 10 national brand in a talent rich state where kids grow up wanting to go to the school he coaches at. Additionally, Chapel Hill is a whole lot more pleasant to live in than say, Auburn or as he proved earlier, Knoxville.
And if he were to leave, where would he go? USC (California) is the best job, but if Bubba breaks out the checkbook now then that job won't be available. Auburn might look for a new coach again soon, but that program is kind of toxic considering they've recently been outstanding and then terrible with a ton of in-fighting. I also feel like Chizik would help persuade him to stay away. Of the other schools with huge expectations, everything is pretty stable. Texas, Florida and Nebraska have new coaches, Michigan has its man in Harbaugh and the big name schools outside of the SEC are content. The schools he has ties to are Baylor, Oklahoma State and Florida (they all seem set) so there is not a scenario when he would go to his alma mater. I don't think there are that many jobs which are better than Chapel Hill if he can win and be considered for national titles here.
That all being said, Bubba can look at Chizik or, if he does not mind the idea of running a program where the coach leaves every time they're good, he could pick someone off of Urban Meyer's staff or any SEC coordinator. I personally would be most interested in Seth Littrell getting the nod. I like the way the offense looks and he should know all Fedora's tricks, keeping continuity. I don't think there would be a big drop-off from Fedora to Littrell since he calls the plays and goes on most offensive player recruiting trips with Fedora already. Littrell's Alma Matre is also Oklahoma, so he would not be heading back there anytime soon.
Doc: Fedora will be a hot name as long as UNC stays hot, but few of the jobs open now are significantly better than UNC right now. Mack Brown leaving for Texas was a no-brainer as Texas is as much football royalty as UNC is basketball royalty. As of right now, there is Southern Cal, Miami, Virginia Tech, and SCAR. Only Southern Cal would be a significant upgrade over UNC at this stage in the game. Fedora is not a west-coast kind of guy to me. The only thing that concerns me at this point would be if Georgia pulls the trigger on Mark Richt or if there are dominoes that fall if a Big XII or SEC coach moves to Southern Cal.
Chizik is a different story. I think it's pretty clear that his time in Chapel Hill has just been a rehab stint, and he has made the most of it. Chizik has worked his way into the discussion of openings given his resume that includes a national title. It's a natural fit to think if Fedora were to move on for some reason that Chizik could move right in, but given UNC's unique optics regarding the NCAA, I'm not sure UNC would want to take on a guy with NCAA baggage. Huge difference between being a coordinator and a head coach in that regard.
Brian: So here's the question. Does Wednesday's announcement that UNC is sinking $25 million into an indoor practice facility mean negotiations to keep Fedora around have already begun?
Paul: I have a couple thoughts on that. I think it one shows commitment to Fedora and to football in general. It might signal that boosters are really keen on keeping Fedora which could prove more powerful than anything Bubba does since if they'll bankroll this then they can bankroll a larger contract. It would also be a chance to name something after Fedora, a big way to make the program "his program" which would potentially ensure he retires as Carolina's coach. But it could also be a hedge against Fedora leaving. It would be a clear way to make UNC the second most attractive coaching destination after USC (the only place we think he would bolt to) and sends the message to everyone that Carolina has boosters and fundraising capabilities to go toe to toe with anyone.
I think most importantly, it's Bubba trying to make Carolina a destination program rather than a stepping stone. It is going to be designed to broadcast to everyone that Carolina is a program that intends to contend every year and that coaches should want to come here to win and stay here winning.
Doc: Whether or not it's the first move in Operation Keep Fedora, it's the necessary step in Operation Keep Up With the Joneses. Did you catch that list of schools with indoor facilities, including Duke, Wake, and NC State? It's the latest in the facilities arms race and one of the few areas in which UNC is behind. The commitment to football is important whether or not Fedora stays, and if he doesn't then it's a selling point for a new coach.