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UNC football looks forward to taking the next step

Building a program takes time. Everyone just needs to relax.

NCAA Football: North Carolina vs Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Folks, welcome to UNC football. Since 1888 they’ve been getting our hopes up, only to let us down. “Maybe next year,” has become the familiar, if half-hearted, mantra. Another marquee season-opening opponent. Another “coulda, woulda, shoulda” disappointing result. Bring on basketball season!

If you are a fan, and you sympathize with the above sentiments, I’d understand. This one hurt. Again. Tar Heel fans truly believed they belonged on the same field as a perennial SEC East contender. Again. Finally, we were supposed to have a team that could compete! Instead we were let down. Again.

Now, I’ll encourage you to take a deep breath. Step back from a ledge. Put down your pitchfork you may have raised in over-the-top, irrational behavior. Loosen your hands, and stop making fists, because if you were like me, you slammed your bar/table/wall multiple times on Saturday. (I apologize to that fine establishment in Nashville that rhymes with “Shooters” for any disturbances I may have caused). Shake it all out. Relax.

There is a saying, that when building a program you have to follow four steps that are easy to understand, but hard to accept.

Step 1: Lose Big

Step 2: Lose Small

Step 3: Win Small

Step 4: Win Big

North Carolina is firmly stuck in Step 3. Sometimes, like last year’s game against NC State, they take that leap to Step 4. Occasionally, such as Saturday night, they revert back to step 2. It’s part of the process, no matter how annoying. It wasn’t long ago that losing big and small was normal, and any win was cause to celebrate.

So, that frustration, anger, and disappointment is a good thing. Hell, it may be a great thing. It honestly might be the most prominent indicator of the Larry Fedora era (and Davis/Bunting/Torbush eras), that UNC football is closer than ever to returning to the national stage since Mack Brown exited stage left. Truth be told, this program is 2-4 years ahead of schedule from where it should reasonably be considering all of the extracurricular issues that mired the Heels in quicksand.

It has legitimately been 20 years since UNC had any rational, logical reasoning to be mentioned in the same breath as the top tier of college football programs. Remember how long it took Mack Brown to even get the program to THAT point? Eight years. That was after winning a grand total of two games in his first two seasons. Yet, they are knocking on the door to join the party with the cool kids.

Since those final Mack Brown seasons, UNC has been a team and program that went into big football games just hoping to compete. Maybe they had a puncher’s chance. Very few marquee match-ups on a national stage ended in success, and those that did were more surprising than expected. If you think otherwise, you are either 1) intellectually dishonest or 2) the most blind, raging homer outside the state of Alabama.

Outside of beating #3 Miami in 2003, what has this program done in highly anticipated games? Scroll though the record books, and the results against ranked teams – even moderately ranked teams - is abysmal. Maybe #13 Clemson in 2001? What about that memorable 2009 year when UNC beat those powerhouse Hokies (#14) and Hurricanes (#15)? #24 FSU in 2010? #23 Pittsburgh last year? A surprisingly resurgent #25 Duke team in 2014?

From 2010 to 2015, UNC was 3-11 against ranked teams. Why on earth have we ever had any reason to consistently feel anything after a marquee loss other than “Ah, we were so close, but yup, they were definitely the better team,”? The answer is, until this year, we haven’t.

Maybe a case can be made for 2010 against LSU, but considering the circumstances our perspective changed at the last minute. 2013 against South Carolina? Fans were amped and hopeful, but really we knew it was more of a barometer game. Disappointment lingered, but there wasn’t any anger. Last year against USC, anger set in only after fans truly realized just how good the team could be. There were questions that needed to be answered, but ultimately, we felt good about the direction of the program. Our faith was restored as the season went on.

And now, finally, this past weekend UNC lost a game on the national stage that it truly should have won. More importantly, the players and fans expected to win. That’s why this was so infuriating. This program is now to the point in its growth that everyone truly, objectively expects to win against teams like Georgia and South Carolina. Compare that to Clemson, where sadness hung around, but ultimately pride took over in the team’s efforts and accomplishments.

That’s how far this program has come. I feel very comfortable with that. Even Clemson had to endure Clemsoning for a few years (decades?). It takes time to understand how to win big.

For the record, I am not making excuses for the coaching staff. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was doing the same things repeatedly, and expecting different outcomes. Using that as a barometer, I found the play calling borderline, if not clinically, insane. Fedora’s comments afterwards showed either a shocking lack of awareness of the situation (again), or he fell on his sword to protect his staff (again).

As a coach, Fedora has to learn that in order to break through that proverbial wall, this isn’t Southern Miss where you can just out-recruit and outscore the opposition, and consider a conference championship a success. When everyone is vying for 5-star recruits, he may need to adapt his philosophy to match the talent level on the field AND on the opposing sidelines.

If he wants UNC to eventually compete with the Clemsons and Georgias, then at some point he has to tweak his system. That probably should include finding a way to keep rushing-heavy opponents from holding the ball for 38 minutes. That should also mean explicitly calling for Hood or Logan to touch the ball. Maybe. For the love of God, hopefully.

To be fair, Fedora has stated plenty of times that the goals for this year are to win the Coastal Division, return to Charlotte, and win the last game. Those goals are all still intact. It seems he has a handle of the overall big picture. I also have no doubt that nobody was as critical about Larry Fedora than he was on himself.

His assessment on Monday was also correct. The mistakes that were made are correctable. Penalties and missed tackles come with increased focus, discipline and practice. Trubisky will make those deep throws and grow into the offense. The depleted, injured defensive line “held” Chubb to just over 5 YPC before that back-breaking run. (Folks, 38 minutes is a long time to be on the field against that rushing attack). A true freshman, Patrice Rene, will learn from his pass interference incidents. Both the players and the coaches will get more consistent. They will all remain patient, but urgent.

As fans, we can learn to be a little more patient as well. UNC football is in a good place, with a solid foundation. The coaching staff made some mistakes. Ok, lots of mistakes. In reality, the players, not counting the penalties, didn’t make many. That alone is a notable improvement from last year.

Building a program is a marathon. On Saturday, UNC lost a 100 meter sprint. Don’t get greedy and keep some perspective. There’s a Coastal Championship to defend. If the Heels accomplish that, then maybe we can all worry about taking that next step.

UNC lost on the road at a neutral site to a higher ranked team, and as a fan base we are collectively angry. There was a time, not too long ago, when we could only dream of being in that situation.