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What the 2016 UNC football season means to me

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It’s been a long road for diehard Carolina football fans. Personally, I’ve sat through the long storm, but finally I see light over the horizon.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

I love Carolina football. I’d even venture to say that UNC football is my favorite of all the other sports the Tar Heels play, but that I’m not even completely sure of. Carolina basketball is loved by all Tar Heel fans, but truth be told, we’ve been spoiled through the years. When it comes to the gridiron, however, that has not been the case. The days have been long and the nights have been even longer. My hope is that we have finally come close to the light at the end of the tunnel.

We’ve talked on and on this offseason about the importance of this football season for Larry Fedora’s program. Fedora came to Carolina in the spring of 2012 amidst an NCAA cloud left behind by the Butch Davis regime. He quickly impressed by bringing in a new, more uptempo offense that propelled Carolina to what would have been a Coastal division title were the program not under an NCAA mandated postseason ban. Fedora leaned on the talents of former Davis recruits Giovani Bernard, Tre Boston, Bryn Renner, and Kareem Martin, to name a few. The two seasons that followed proved that things would not be as easy as they seemed in his debut season.

In 2013, Carolina limped to a 1-5 start, marked by a heartbreaking loss to 10th ranked Miami on cornily named Zero Dark Thursday. The Tar Heels turned the year around, even after the career-ending shoulder injury to starting quarterback Bryn Renner, winning six of their last seven, capped off by a convincing bowl victory versus Cincinnati. Marquise Williams’ play in tribute to Renner to end 2013 encouraged the AP to rank Carolina 23rd in the preseason, placing ACC Coastal buzz for the Heels.

2014 started off with two comeback wins against lesser opponents, in FCS Liberty and San Diego State, foreshadowing the landfall to come. An ill-fated trip to Greenville is one that Carolina fans and East Carolina fans alike won’t soon forget. Shane Carden, Justin Hardy, and the ECU offense put up a record 789 total yards and 70 points.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning immediately came under fire for his defense, but somehow lived to oversee yet another inexplicable defensive performance against Clemson, as then-true freshman DeShaun Watson had his own record-setting performance against the maligned Tar Heels D. Koenning’s record of “fire the whole staff” games was only overshadowed by the overall “production” from his defensive unit. Like in 2013, Carolina was able to right the ship in the second half until suffering the season’s final embarrassment, laying down to a Rutgers team in the Motor City Bowl.

After a loss to lowly South Carolina to start the 2015 season, I don’t think many expected that Carolina would reel off 11 straight wins. The Tar Heels had their true turnaround on the road at Georgia Tech. Following, a head-scratching outing from Williams against Delaware, the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ quarterback had one of his patented bounce back games, as the Heels overcame a 21-0 deficit to beat the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta for the first time since 1997.

“Since 1997” would become the trend of 2015. UNC won 10+ games for the first time “since 1997.” They contended for their first ACC title for the first time ”since 1997.” Carolina fans had hope for the first time “since 1997” that an athletics program that virtually wins at every sport could finally become nationally relevant in the one that had forever eluded them.

2016 has a myriad of meanings for each member of Tar Heels Nation. For me, this could be the year that I finally believe that Carolina has a football coach that can keep us at the top for a long time. I believed that Butch Davis was that guy. Despite, finishing 8-4 nearly every year at the helm, I believed that what he did at Miami could happen in Chapel Hill. In my heart of hearts, I know that had the roof not come crashing down, the Tar Heels would have been in the national title conversation in 2010.

I don’t care what Auburn had in Cam Newton or what Oregon had with Chip Kelly wearing the headset. Every Sunday during the fall, I watch former players from that lost 2010 season playing in the NFL and wonder what could have been. Likewise, I’m sure, will be the case for 2015 as I still wake up with night sweats over the flop versus Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks.

2016 can mend the wounds that I have. Now, I don’t think that it’s wise to project Carolina to be in the playoffs, but anything less than an ACC title appearance would be a letdown. A win or loss versus Georgia doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of winning the program’s first ACC title since 1980, but damn do I want to knock off one of the SEC’s “big boy” programs. We’ve only won once in Tallahassee—that being last time we visited in 2010—but could you imagine the feeling of getting off to a 4-0 start and entering a Top 10 or 15 showdown in primetime? I would take just the opportunity to bring down a surging Clemson program in Charlotte. This time without the back-breaking turnovers and phantom “offsides” call.

I waited 22 years to see a Carolina team perform at a high-level—I was too young to remember ‘97—forgive me if I get greedy and want to see it happen again a year later. I remember the highs of boat racing FSU 41-9 in 2001 and upsetting Miami at homecoming in 2004—-God bless you Connor Barth.

I was there the night the lights went out versus UCONN. I’ll never forget turning on the TV at the W Hotel in Midtown Atlanta seeing that over a handful of Carolina’s most important players hadn’t made the trek versus LSU. I’ll never get over that or the embarrassment of walking out of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2014, but 2016 paired with the magic of last season could finally heal those wounds.

Next Thursday, I’ll head to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, CT and head down to Atlanta. I’ll watch the Braves play one last time at Turner Field—don’t ask me why—and tour the College Football Hall of Fame. Friday night, I will rest my head on my pillow remembering the dream that was last season, hoping that when I wake up in the morning and head over to the Georgia Dome in the afternoon and leave around 9:00 PM, that the dream of Carolina being relevant at football still isn’t over.