Back during the 1996 season, Carolina went to Charlottesville for a Saturday night game with an 8-1 record. The story goes that if UNC beat Virginia and then took care of rival Duke the next week the Tar Heels would slide into the Fiesta Bowl which was part of the Bowl Alliance, the 1990s precursor to the BCS. The #6 ranked Tar Heels looked to be in complete control of the game in the fourth quarter leading 17-3 and sitting on the Virginia 10 yard line. Then the wheels went flying off in spectacular fashion. Tar Heel QB Chris Keldorf threw an interception which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown. Virginia would score again to tie the game then complete a big pass play to find field goal range for the game winner. The 20-17 loss ended any hope of a higher tier bowl as the Tar Heels landed in the Gator Bowl versus West Virginia.
Nineteen years later it was deja vu all over again. The Tar Heels, playing in the state of Virginia, had a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter with eyes on a very big prize. UNC at 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the ACC was a win away from clinching the Coastal Division, recording a ten win season and earning a spot versus Clemson in the ACC Championship. As Jones Angell aptly put it, UNC had its "arms around" the Coastal Division crown. The Tar Heels had not one but two drives that at worst would have bled precious clock and at best extended the lead another score to effectively deny Frank Beamer his storybook ending. In three minute span the demons of 1996 arrived and in horrifying fashion all that had happened before was seemingly happening again.
As UNC's season has progressed passing various historical mileposts there have also arisen opportunities which, in the past, the Tar Heels have failed to seize, Larry Fedora has been asked about UNC program history and his consistent response has been those failures didn't happen to this team. In Fedora's view the 2015 Tar Heels were unencumbered by the sins of their predecessors. While technically this is true, a program doesn't spend huge swaths of time wandering the desert without some consistent cosmic weirdness keeping the brass ring just out of reach. UNC fans, well abused by so many failures, waited week in and week out for the other shoe to drop. Even as good as UNC had been, surely it would unravel at some point right?
That point appeared to arrive late in the fourth quarter with UNC up 24-10. Marquise Williams, who had been the catalyst for UNC's run to the top of the Coastal Division, fumbled not once or twice on a pair potential game clinching drives. It's not that UNC was just stopped by the Virginia Tech defense. At least a couple of series that went to fourth down would have consumed clock, Hokie timeouts and permitted UNC to pin Virginia Tech in its own end. These were turnovers, momentum shifting miscues on which the game drastically turned. When the second Williams fumble of the quarter hit the ground, the Hokies were convinced Frank Beamer's storybook ending at Lane Stadium was a simple matter of destiny.
As regulation ended , momentum had clearly swung in Virgina Tech's favor and almost every UNC fan was curled up in the fetal position muttering "not again." These Tar Heels had moved from on the verge of being Coastal Division champions to possibly being the next in a long list of moments Carolina came up short on the football field. The "Virginia game" was about to be replaced with the "Virginia Tech game" baptizing a new generation of Tar Heel fans into football misery while reawakening 19 year old repressed memories for everyone else.
As is turns out, Fedora was right about one thing: This team was something new and the past was indeed in the past. In some ways we already knew this season was different even if we couldn't fully allow ourselves to believe it. The comeback win versus Georgia Tech to snap a losing streak in Atlanta, the road win versus Pittsburgh on a national TV stage and the wanton destruction of both Duke and Miami, screamed this was a team singularly focused and able to get over the hump. While that may not have been true for much of the game in Blacksburg on Saturday, it was true when it counted most. Perhaps, more than any other time all season, UNC took a game which so much had gone wrong and mustered enough right plays to get the win since that's what good teams generally do.
The 2015 Tar Heels came face-to-face with the demons of UNC's football past and with a division title on the line exorcised them. For the first time in a long time Carolina fans can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.