The fifth year of North Carolina football under Larry Fedora has begun, and it already feels a lot like previous seasons. As we all know, UNC lost a close game in Atlanta to Georgia this past weekend in frustrating fashion. It was a winnable game. The Heels had chances to pull away up 10, but offensive woes, boneheaded plays, and officiating doomed the team to another disappointing opening weekend loss.
The struggles of Carolina under Fedora on opening weekend have been well documented on this site. The Heels have now lost twice to South Carolina and once to Georgia, and at least two of those three probably should’ve been victories for UNC. The game against Georgia and last year’s game against South Carolina are eerily similar in what caused North Carolina’s downfall. Disconcertingly, it appears that Carolina, Fedora, and the staff didn’t learn from their mistakes.
The offense struggled to get anything going against the Gamecocks last season, as Fedora opted for a heavy passing attack. Elijah Hood didn’t get the ball as much as he should have. The defense performed admirably but ultimately couldn’t hold up for four quarters. This year should’ve been different, right? Nope.
The Georgia game came from the same script. In his first start, Mitch Trubisky was asked to do way more than he should’ve been. Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan were electric with their touches, but they barely got any. The defense, again, played well for most of the game, but they couldn’t hold on long enough. Did Fedora and the staff do enough to prepare for this?
For all of Fedora’s strengths and accomplishments, he is still failing at big games against strong competition. Just add Georgia to the list of pretty good teams that the Heels came oh-so-close to beating. The Bulldogs are a solid team with a great running game and could have a great year in the SEC. Nonetheless, UNC and their fans know how much they should’ve won. Fedora missed an opportunity to start the season off with a ton of excitement and momentum.
Simply, this is not a good trend for North Carolina and Fedora. He has certainly established a solid floor for the football team because it doesn’t appear as though the Heels will have to worry about making bowl games for the time being, but the ceiling of where this program could go is getting lower and lower. Last year the school faded into national irrelevance for much of the year, and the very same could happen this season. It’s definitely early to write off the program's increasing success, yet it already seems like it could be stagnating.
Just to see the malaise that could be setting in around Chapel Hill, ask yourself: what is Fedora’s best win as head coach? It’s a struggle to even think of one. The NC State game in 2012 where Giovani Bernard won the game on a magnificent punt return is memorable, but it came at home to an average Wolfpack squad. Are there any others that stand out?
In fact, the Tar Heels have only beaten one ranked team since Fedora took the job (meaning a team ranked at the time UNC played them). That was last season at Pittsburgh. While it was a big victory for the Heels, defeating a team that had always frustrated them and showing some much-needed strength on the road, it isn’t exactly a marquee win. The other great wins are most likely last year’s blowouts of Miami and Duke, although both those teams were weaker as well.
North Carolina’s schedule has oft been criticized for its relative ease, with multiple FCS teams on the slate and only a few real challenges. This makes a loss to a Georgia or a South Carolina hurt even more. Last season, nobody really cared about the Heels until the ACC Championship Game. Yes, they were playing well, but they were beating weaker teams. This year’s schedule is harder, with several tough road games (including one at FSU).
North Carolina can’t keep missing out on these golden opportunities to make a statement. What Fedora and the staff have done with the program is commendable, but has the team already peaked? Can all we expect from these Tar Heels is another solid year, beating teams worse than them and wasting chances to defeat better opposition?
Sadly, UNC doesn’t really have a chance to turn this growing narrative around this season, except for the Florida State game in Tallahassee and a bowl game. Should North Carolina pull off a momentous upset of the Noles for Fedora’s biggest win or finally show up in a bowl game, the program would be trending further upwards. For many around the country now, the Heels are a solid football team that will win eight or so games but never surprise anyone. That’s certainly a lot better than where the program has been. Still, with success comes expectation and, for now, UNC and Fedora are stuck.