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UNC football still has a ways to go

The Duke loss confirmed some Tar Heel fears about stagnation or regression in Larry Fedora’s program.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Most UNC fans have probably already turned their attention to basketball season with thoughts of Joel Berry II winning postseason awards, Isaiah Hicks upping his numbers and limiting his fouls as he gets more minutes, and guys like Kenny Williams and Luke Maye beginning to make more of an impact. That’s understandable, particularly after the football squad’s deflating loss to a bad Duke team near the end of a somewhat underwhelming season.

No ACC Championship Game. No revenge rematch game against Deshaun Watson and Clemson. No chance at a New Year’s Six bowl. Instead, the Tar Heels will play in some smaller bowl game with a bizarrely humorous advertiser against a slightly-above-average team from another conference. Following the highs of last season and many of the stellar performances this season, it’s a little frustrating to see the year wind down like this.

What does all this say about the state of UNC football under Larry Fedora? While there’s no doubt that the program has improved immensely and, excitingly, offers fun-to-watch football every week, this season could and should have gone better. An opening-weekend loss to Georgia stings more and more with each passing week, as the Bulldogs currently sit at 5-4. The coaching staff didn’t seem well-prepared for that matchup, and it continued a trend of North Carolina performing poorly to open the season against big teams.

The Virginia Tech loss during Hurricane Matthew hurt even more, severely damaging the team’s attempt to repeat as Coastal Division champions. Moreover, that three-point showing in a 31-point beatdown was another indictment for a coaching staff whose largest criticism is a disregard for properly adjusting and planning for a different team every week. The Elijah Hood injury was a hindrance, but the coaching staff simply didn’t do enough to get ready for a game they knew would be played in horrible weather.

And now we come to the loss against Duke, arguably the worst team in the ACC, at least until this game. Before the Blue Devils upset the Heels on Thursday night, they were the only team not to have won a conference game—yes, even Boston College had a conference win. They had lost three close games in a row, and most of their games, win or loss, have been extremely close. But Duke’s hopes to reach a bowl game are alive once again, thanks to the 28-27 win over their hated rivals.

Sitting at 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the conference, UNC certainly hasn’t had a bad season. Aside from just the coaching issues—such as Fedora basically admitting the team wasn’t prepared for Duke—there are some other interesting facets to this season. Mitch Trubisky, for the most part, has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country in his first year as a full-time starter. His completion percentage, his lack of turnovers, and his consistency have all been mightily impressive.

However, when his level of play even drops slightly, the Heels suddenly have a much greater chance of losing. Without Trubisky’s herculean efforts at times against FSU, Pitt, and others, UNC could have a few more losses on their record. It should come as no surprise that, in the three worst games for Trubisky, North Carolina lost all three.

Elsewhere, the running game has been a weird question mark. The offensive line problems have greatly impaired the rushing attack but, even with that, Hood and T.J. Logan have not gotten the ball enough. The most carries Hood has received in a game were 18 all the way back against James Madison. Against Duke, he had just 13—still for 75 yards—as well as five catches for 58 yards, leading UNC in both rushing and receiving. Even with all the highlight plays from Trubisky and Ryan Switzer, Hood is still the team’s best player and, too often, he hasn’t been used as such.

So as not to be all negative, there are still many bright spots to come out of the football team this year. The aforementioned arrival of Trubisky, the massive games from Switzer, the Nick Weiler field goal to beat FSU, the Bug Howard touchdown catch to beat Pitt, and much more. The defense has also made improvements, and this is something that can help Carolina weather a potentially weakened offense next season—Switzer, Logan, and Mack Hollins will all graduate while Trubisky and Hood could leave early. As time passes, those will be the pieces of this season that remain in our memory.

But, at the moment, it’s difficult not to feel let down by this year. The switch from Marquise Williams to Trubisky was the only major change from last season to this one, and it’s surprising UNC didn’t keep up the same consistency.

What does it all mean for the program? Again, Fedora has helped out UNC and the football team way more than he’s hurt it, but we might be entering a reality where last season is the ceiling for UNC football. That’s nothing to be angry or upset about, just a readjustment of expectations.

Much like this year for UNC basketball, next year will be crucial for Fedora and Carolina. A lot of important guys on offense could be gone, and how much the Tar Heels can stem those losses will go a long way in determining the long-term success of the program. Seven to nine wins would be massive and show that North Carolina under Fedora is here to be reckoned with in the ACC for years to come.

As for the final two games of this season, there’s still a lot to play for. Citadel should be an easy victory, leaving one final test against rival NC State. Losing to Duke and NC State in the same year when both are definitively much worse simply can’t happen. There’s been some disappointment this season, but these Heels have pride, talent, and determination to soundly beat the Wolfpack in the final home game. After that, it’s more of a mystery.