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Why UNC football deserves more respect heading into 2016

While other ACC foes are being lauded after 2015’s success, Carolina still is trying to gain the respect that it rightfully deserve.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina’s football program has been long viewed as a sleeping giant. Once in a blue moon that giant would awake for a strong season. Under the late Bill Dooley, Carolina won back-to-back ACC titles in 1971 and ’72. The Tar Heels came a game short of 10 wins in their 1971 campaign only to finish with a top 12 AP ranking and 11-1 record the following season. The programs winningest coach, Dick Crum, with the help of Lawrence Taylor, won the Tar Heels’ last ACC title in 1980. Despite falling short of a repeat title in 1981, Crum still posted the programs first consecutive 10-win seasons (11-1 in ’80; 10-2 in ’81).

The feat would not be accomplished again until Mack Brown led the Tar Heels to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1996 and ’97. In ’96 Brown coached a team coming off a disappointing 7-5 season after starting the year ranked in the Top 20. Brown’s Tar Heels shut out 25th ranked Clemson to start the season en route to a 10-2 record and Top 10 finish. Carolina began the ’97 season ranked eighth and after an 8-0 start faced Florida State in a Top 5 showdown in Chapel Hill (the only time College Gameday has visited), in what was then dubbed “the biggest game in ACC history.” Unfortunately, the ‘Noles ended UNC starting quarterback Oscar Davenport’s season on the way to a 20-3 victory and ACC championship. Carolina still finished the season 11-1 and ranked 4th in the Coaches’ poll.

Like in 1996, Larry Fedora was coaching a 2015 team that had started the previous season in the Top 25 only to finish with a regrettable 6-7 record. The Tar Heels didn’t start out a strong as Brown’s team, but they went on an 11-game win streak, following the letdown versus South Carolina, to earn the Coastal division crown. UNC fell short, like in ‘97, to an ACC power in Clemson and then was embarrassed defensively by Baylor in the Russell Athletic bowl. Despite Carolina having its first 10+ win season since the Brown era and posting the most prolific offense in school history, most of the conversation last year and this offseason has been on the strength, or lack thereof, of the team’s schedule and the defense’s performance in the final two games.

Carolina lost to a bad South Carolina team”

Heading into 2015, few predicted that South Carolina would go 3-9 and lose to the Citadel. Although, anyone paying close attention knew that the program was in decline under Steve Spurrier and was unlikely to compete at the top of the SEC East. Typically, when a team losses to an SEC opponent the “S.E.C” chants ring loud and the national media strokes the conference’s ego. Of course with Carolina’s luck they lost to the wrong SEC team and that loss to the Gamecocks was held over their heads all season long, but not quite like the two FCS dates with North Carolina A&T and Delaware.

“Carolina played two FCS teams.”

The scheduling of FCS teams has been a hot topic across college football in the past several years and the installation of the College Football Playoff has everything to do with it. The Big Ten and PAC 12 have gone as far to ban the scheduling of FCS programs (even though a large percentage of those schools fund a large portion of their athletics programs through these games) and moved to a nine-game conference schedule. The SEC and ACC have kept their eight-game schedules and continued to schedule FCS foes, along with the Big 12, who has larger issues outside of scheduling.

The debate over having comparable schedules across the Power Five conferences is something that has been pushed by Big Ten commissioner and Carolina alum, Jim Delaney, but is unlikely to be adopted due to the varying strengths of each conference. This debate over schedule strength led to the vast scrutiny of Carolina playing two FCS teams in 2015.

The issue was not entirely the Tar Heels’ fault, as schools dropped their commitment to play a home-and-home in both 2015 and ’16. When that happens a program has to scramble to fill its schedule, making it difficult to find a willing Power 5 or even Group of 5 opponent to schedule in that slot. One could argue that playing a power FCS program like a North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, or James Madison is no different than playing a lowly Group of 5 school like Eastern Michigan or UCF. Unfortunately, perception and reality are two very different things.

Carolina avoided Clemson, Florida State and Louisville.”

FCS schools aside, Carolina was disregarded, last season, for avoiding the Atlantic behemoths of Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville. Contrary to what national pundits think, I’m not convinced that by replacing Wake Forest with either of the three schools would have changed Carolina’s trajectory in the ACC. Louisville spent the entirety of 2015 switching quarterbacks after a 0-3 start and won games against NC State, Wake Forest, and Virginia all by one possession. UNC, on the other hand, defeated each of those teams by double-digits, while also defeating a Pittsburgh team on the road that the Cardinals fell to in the same venue.

Carolina, as we all know, played Clemson in a tight game in Charlotte only to be undone by the poor quarterbacking of Marquise Williams and a phantom offsides call on a critical onside kick. The what ifs are endless with that game so I’m not sure the Heels couldn’t have clipped the Tigers had they traveled to Kenan.

Florida State, by comparison, I wouldn’t hand a victory over to either. In games versus common opponents (Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson, NC State, and Miami), FSU outscored them 116-102, while posting a 3-2 record. UNC outscored the same teams 229-145, finishing 4-1 against them. Even with that and a Coastal division crown, FSU was selected for a New Years Six bowl appearance over Carolina where the Seminoles lost to American foe Houston. Notwithstanding, a loss to Clemson, the unknown of who will take the first snap versus Ole Miss on Labor Day night, and underperforming in the ACC when compared to the Tar Heels, FSU is now considered a national championship favorite.

“Carolina took advantage of a weak schedule.”

Sure, if taking advantage of scheduling means going 8-1 against ACC opponents while outscoring them by a 377-235 (42-26 average score) margin. If that’s the case, then what do you call Clemson outscoring conference rivals 349-189 (39-21 average score) and going undefeated?

Carolina’s defense is a major liability.”

I won’t disagree with the criticism that the Carolina defense has received over the past few years. The bulk of it has been justified, but at the very least I’d like to see the national media types give credit where credit is due. The 2014 defense was historically the worst defense in Carolina has ever allowed on the field. Typically, when something is bad, especially historically bad, you replace it with something that is good, even if not historically good. Gene Chizik was that something. Chizik was the defensive coordinator for an undefeated Auburn team in 2004 that won the Sugar Bowl and Texas’ national championship team in 2005, while also being at the head of Auburn’s undefeated national championship season in 2010. The guy has a pretty good track record.

Someone who also has a great track record is Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis, affectionately known as ‘Chief’, has been tasked to turnaround a recently putrid defense in College Station. Most commentary I’ve heard is that he should be able to do that in Year 2. While I won’t argue against the talent A&M has, I find it interesting how a defensive front that has been consistently steamrolled since joining the SEC is expected to improve but Chizik, who is also in Year 2 and made strides in his first season, is not given the same respect. I don’t expect this defense to overnight look like the ones of the Butch Davis or Brown eras. I at the very least expect some semblance of respect towards Chizik’s proven track record when there’s outside talk of the UNC D.

All I’m asking is for a little respect when I go online. Carolina returns the bulk of both their offensive and defensive units from a season ago. Chronicled in the seasons above, Carolina historically has been able to carry the momentum from a 9 or 10+ win season over to the next and performed at, or close to, the same win total. Yes, the Heels add Georgia to their schedule in a game that will likely be more a home game rather than a neutral site. Yes, a date in Tallahassee versus a Top 5 team awaits. The competition may go up a tick but why with 14 returning starters, a schedule that boasts 7 teams with new head coaches, and an ever improving coaching staff would one not expect the trend of back-to-back years of success to continue?