On September 3rd, UNC stepped onto the Bank of America Stadium field versus South Carolina with high hopes of putting the awful conclusion of the 2014 season to bed. The Tar Heels had a new defensive staff, a fifth year senior quarterback, a ready to go offensive line and playmakers at every skill position. It was the perfect combination of experience, talent and comfort in an offensive system capable of producing yards and points in buckets. Carolina had a national TV spotlight to make a solid first impression.
Not so much.
On one hand there was plenty to be excited about. The defense was no longer a dumpster fire as evidenced by the general level of execution and cornerbacks doing things like turning their heads when the pass was in the air. The Tar Heels seemingly found a rushing attack in Elijah Hood who ran roughshod over the Gamecocks on just 12 carries. However there were still concerns. Marquise Williams quite literally threw the game away with three awful interceptions, two in the end zone and directly to a Gamecock linebacker. Larry Fedora's decision to not even have Hood on the field raised old questions about his game management.
A game that could have set the stage for UNC having a special season left a bad taste in the mouth of everyone from coaches to players to fans. As it turns out, the special season for UNC was still possible and as much as the loss has damaged the Tar Heels in the CFP rankings, it may very well have been a catalyst for what lay ahead. The loss refocused the team and rallied the players.
At 3-1 the Tar Heels went to Georgia Tech and instead of giving up when the Yellow Jackets staked a 21-0 lead, UNC roared back. The defense stiffened in the second half and that quarterback who failed UNC so mightily versus South Carolina and was benched against Delaware scored in by throwing, running and catching the football. From there, UNC found its footing in impressive fashion. It crushed Wake Forest at home then took care of Virginia in a tough but uneven game.
Then came the gauntlet and another turn under the national spotlight with a Thursday night game at Pittsburgh. This time, UNC didn't falter despite a less than stellar second half. The resiliency missing versus South Carolina but found in the second half in Atlanta, was now part of this team's identity. Against Duke and Miami is was an obscene display of offensive firepower. In the games versus Virginia Tech and NC State, it was finding ways to win while simultaneously trying to lose the game with mistakes.
In the eleven wins since the loss to South Carolina, the Tar Heels have run the full spectrum. They've been thoroughly dominant at times. On other occasions stumbled but found a way to stay on track. In all of this there was a growing confidence that has even broken the most pessimistic Tar Heel fan from from knee jerk reactions of doom and gloom. In eleven games the Tar Heels written a new story about football in Chapel Hill. Not one who squanders the opportunities but seizes them, a team that wants it all and is supremely confident it can have it.
Now comes the rarest of opportunities, especially for Marquise Williams, a second chance to make an impression. The Tar Heel quarterback is painfully aware that his miscues in the 17-13 loss to South Carolina were key factors in UNC coming up short. The albatross around UNC's collective neck, the one that gives the CFP Committee pause when looking at Carolina's resume, is very much Williams' doing. Now on an even bigger stage, with mammoth stakes and against college football's #1 team, Williams can discard it and give the Tar Heels arguably its greatest victory and season in school history.
Redemption is only possible if one falls first. The disappointing thud which was UNC during the season opener against South Carolina left the Tar Heels with an uncertain season and a tough climb against perception and self doubt. The eleven games since have been a journey in building confidence, exorcising old demons and reaching rarefied air for UNC football. One final step remains Saturday night and if the Tar Heels can climb it they won't be just redeeming one game but decades of disappointment and failure.
No pressure right?