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A comprehensive history of UNC’s horrific non-conference scheduling luck

Carolina is really bad at picking their non-conference opponents.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

(This started out as the segue into my Central Florida preview, but 2000 words seemed to be a few too many as a lead-in to a preview.)

If there were a Wiki for North Carolina non-conference scheduling this millennium, it would be a fascinating and depressing read. 2001 is an excellent cut-off date because it is the beginning of one of the stupidest streaks in sports: Carolina has not won a P5 opener against a non-conference team since 2000.

Read that again.

Pour yourself a stiff drink.

We’re taking a dark stroll down memory lane.

John Bunting Era

2001: Bunting was always in over his head, as was the man who hired him. Presented with an opportunity to visit defending national champ Oklahoma after less than a month on the job, Bunting had the following to say:

“I think this is important for us to get better faster,” said Bunting after announcing the game in early February. “When you get opportunities to play against the best when you are a young program it helps you progress. It helps you grow up faster. These guys have got to find out what it’s like to play against No. 1. We asked for that extra game to help us learn how to compete at the highest level.”

To his credit, that quote kind of foretold how the 2001 season played out. The Heels discovered Darian Durant in a 41-27 loss in Norman.

The issue is, they traveled back to Big XII country two weeks later to visit Texas for a 44-14 loss.

I challenge anyone to find a more reckless non-conference schedule, even from a G5 or FCS school, than trips TO DAMN TEXAS AND OKLAHOMA BEFORE SEPTEMBER 9.

The Heels turned the season around with a 41-9 drubbing of Florida State (their third top-10 opponent in 4 games) and finished 8-5.

SCOREBOARD: 2-2, 0-2 vs. P5. Final rankings: Texas 5, Oklahoma 6.

2002: Let’s get one thing clear: the Heels didn’t lose to Miami (OH) for the second time in 5 years because of Ben Roethlisberger’s exploits. But they lost to Miami (OH). They beat a 4-8 Syracuse team by 8 in the Carrier Dome, and an 8-6 Arizona State team in Tempe. Oh, and they invited Mack Brown back to Chapel Hill to beat the Heels by 30+ again.

SCOREBOARD: 4-4, 2-3 vs. P5 (counting Big East, I guess). Lost. To. A. MAC. Team. Final rankings: Texas 7.

2003: A 2-10 team was swept, by Syracuse and Arizona State in Kenan and Wisconsin in Madison. Those teams combined to finish 18-19, but Carolina was bad, and they were playing non-conference games, so they were DOA. The 12th game did allow for a win against ECU.

SCOREBOARD: 5-7, 2-6 vs. P5.

2004: The inspiration for this post.

Bobby Petrino’s first Louisville team went 9-4. His second shut out the Heels 34-0 en route to an 11-1 finish.

BYU Cougars v Utah Utes
The best Utah team in history.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Urban Meyer’s first Utah team finished 10-2, because Urban Meyer is amazing. His second one was the original BCS buster, and did so in part by beating Carolina 46-16.

As with 2001, this was one of Bunting’s better teams, as the battle-tested Heels made a bowl game (only to lose to Boston College). A 49-38 win over William and Mary helped matters.

SCOREBOARD: 5-9 (vs. FCS), 2-6 vs. P5, but drew two of the best G5 teams in the BCS era. Life isn’t fair. Utah finished #5 in the coaches’ poll, and Louisville #7.

2005: The return trip from Wisconsin saw a team that would finish 10-3, and the Heels got FIVED by them. Five. Points. The. Whole. Game. Utah slid to 7-5 and lost in Chapel Hill. Louisville slid to 9-3 and beat the Heels 63-14.

SCOREBOARD: 6-11 vs. FCS, 2-7 vs. P5, and at this point 2-4 vs. G5. Wisconsin finished ranked #15, Louisville #20.

2006: Rutgers had won 23 games combined the past 7 seasons. Cure? SCHEDULE NORTH FRICKIN CAROLINA! The Scarlet Knights won the opener in Chapel Hill en route to a 9-0 start and an 11-2 finish. This is so much more bizarre than the Louisville/Utah thing.

The Heels caught South Florida in an interesting spot— a year BEFORE their peak. A year before their peak was still good for a 17-point win in Chapel Hill.

For fun, the Heels also threw a late-October road trip to South Bend on the schedule. The Irish opened the season #2, played Carolina ranked 11th, and rose back to 6th.

Sidenote: the Heels scored a miraculous victory over Furman, 45-42, in the original Cam Sexton game.

SCOREBOARD: 6-14 vs. FCS, 2-9 vs. P5, 2-5 vs. G5. Rutgers finished #12, Notre Dame #19.

All told, Bunting drew NINE teams who finished their seasons ranked in 22 games. Peak SEC West can’t top those numbers. John Bunting, who was never a good football coach, was done no favors by schedules (Oklahoma aside) written 8-10 years out.

Butch Davis

2007: It took some time to get the Bunting scheduling stink off. The Heels beat JMU, lost at East Carolina, and then:

  • Drew South Florida on their meteoric rise up the polls in the weird 2007 season. The Bulls won 37-10 in Tampa, and rose from #23 in the country to #2 just four short weeks later. 2007, y’all.
  • South Carolina went 13-10 in Steve Spurrier’s first two years, and came to Chapel Hill 5-1 and ranked #12. The Cocks would win a close game, 21-15, rise to 5 in the polls, and subsequently lose five straight to close the season.

This is point number two: even when drawing beatable teams, the Heels catch them when they’re hot.

North Carolina v South Florida
The best USF team in history, at least by midseason.
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

SCOREBOARD: 6-17 vs. FCS, 2-10 vs. P5, 2-7 vs. G5, nobody finished the season ranked.

2008: I still can’t claim that Carolina had the Bunting stank off yet, because a 4-0 nonconference schedule included a RANKED UConn team. Read that out loud without automatically picturing Jim Calhoun.

A 44-12 win at Rutgers exorcised the “first P5 road game” demons. The 38-12 win over #23 UConn (still looks wrong) got the Heels ranked for the first time since 2001. The 29-24 win over Notre Dame was the best UNC football atmosphere I’ve ever experienced.

I miss Butch Davis.

SCOREBOARD: 9-17 vs. FCS, 5-10 vs. P5, still 2-7 vs. G5 if we’re including the Big East.

2009: The curse was lifted. It didn’t hurt that the Heels played ZERO P5’s (though we’re still counting the Big East until the Syracuse/Louisville departures) and two FCS teams. Wins are important, kids. UConn and ECU both made bowl games (again, try saying that with a straight face in 2018).

SCOREBOARD: 11-17 vs. FCS, 6-10 vs. P5, 3-7 vs. G5.

2010: The 2010 Heels were primed for great things, and scheduled as such, with the Chick-Fil-A kickoff against LSU. Well, half the team was suspended, Zack Pianalto got held in the endzone twice in the waning seconds, and Carolina lost 30-24. I can give that a pass, though LSU rose from 18 in the initial polls to 8 by the end of the season.

Carolina went to Rutgers and beat a 4-8 squad, and pantsed ECU 42-17 in Chapel Hill. Another fun scare from an FCS opponent came in the middle of the season when the Heels edged William and Mary (final FCS rank: 8) 21-17.

SCOREBOARD: 13-18 vs. FCS, 7-11 vs. P5, 4-7 vs. G5. LSU finished #8.

2011: Sweep. JMU, Rutgahs (freaking again), ECU, Louisville. This was the Everett Withers year, and I’m just going to take the liberty of counting it in the Davis era.

Its worth noting that there was a series for 2011/12 with Tennessee set, but the Vols backed out, citing an already-difficult schedule.

SCOREBOARD: 16-18 vs. FCS, 9-11 vs. P5, 5-7 vs. G5.

Davis was more immune to the scheduling curse-- he caught some good Big East opponents in his time, but finished with a ridiculous 17-3 record. The 1-3 mark against ranked opponents is a blemish, but it beats 0-9. The Heels had the look and feel of a name college football program under Davis, and I thank him for his service.

Larry Fedora

2012: The replacement for Tennessee was Idaho, for what its worth. Fedora showed early he doesn’t mess around with inferior opponents, drubbing the Vandals and Elon by a combined score of 128-0. The Heels beat ECU in Chapel Hill, 27-6.

And...Carolina found itself visiting Louisville at the peak of the Charlie Strong era. Despite a spirited comeback, the Heels lost in the Pizza Bowl 39-34 to a team that would go on to win the Sugar Bowl against Florida.

SCOREBOARD: 18-19 vs. FCS, 9-12 vs. P5, 7-7 vs. G5 (.500 baby!) Louisville finished #13.

2013: In order to schedule the LSU game in 2010, the Heels had to push a trip to South Carolina back to this year. The 2010 Cocks won the SEC East, but were just 9-5 on the season. The 2011, ‘12, and ‘13 Cocks all finished in the top-10 with identical 11-2 records. We drew the best team in South Carolina history. Again.

Carolina’s vaunted offense never got it going against Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks, losing the opener 27-10.

North Carolina v South Carolina
The best South Carolina team in history.

The lone win of the first half of the season was a 40-20 triumph over Middle Tennessee, but ECU came back to Chapel Hill and hung 55 on a hapless Carolina defense. The Heels could’ve scored 100 against Old Dominion in “SoCon Saturday”, which has recently been adopted by the ACC (yes, I realize ODU is not in the Southern Conference).

Worth noting that, again, Carolina was bought out of a P5 home-and-home— this time with Minnesota.

SCOREBOARD: 19-21 vs. FCS, 9-13 vs. P5, 8-9 vs. G5 (not .500, baby.) The Cocks finished #4.

2014: Liberty was a W, San Diego State was a late replacement for the Minnesota game, and the Heels tried awfully hard to lose that game, but prevailed on a T.J. Logan touchdown in the final seconds.

...this happened in Greenville.

Notre Dame finished the 2014 season 8-5, but the Heels, again, managed to catch the Irish at their peak, and visited South Bend with the Domers 5-0 and #6 in the country. A hard-fought 50-43 loss is still a loss.

SCOREBOARD: 20-23 vs. FCS, 9-14 vs. P5, 9-10 vs. G5.

2015: In hindsight, the 17-13 loss in Charlotte to South Carolina may be the biggest loss in Carolina football history, at least among games they should’ve won. Elijah Hood was cast aside for Marquise Williams to throw two of his three picks in the endzone, and the Heels disappeared from the national consciousness. For a while.

Delaware, Illinois, and North Carolina A&T came to Chapel Hill the next three weeks, and left giving up a combined 142 points (and scoring a tidy 14 each). Even at that point, nobody realized that the Heels were starting an 11-game winning streak.

The irony doesn’t end there. The fallout from the cancelled Tennessee and Minnesota series led to some shuffling that forced the Heels to schedule two FCS opponents to get to seven home games, a luxury they have rarely had in the 2010’s.

But effing South Carolina, man.

SCOREBOARD: 21-24 vs. FCS, 10-15 vs. P5, 9-10 vs. G5.

2016: Hey, the Heels caught a name opponent in a down year! ...It didn’t matter, Georgia triumphed over Carolina 33-24. The Heels went to Illinois and won, and beat eventual FCS national champ James Madison (and playoff participant The Citadel).

SCOREBOARD: 22-25 vs. FCS, 11-16 vs. P5, 9-10 vs. G5.

2017: The Heels were supposed to host Ohio State on September 23, but lo and behold, the Buckeyes backed out. That was a fine decision.

Cal came into Chapel Hill with a new coach, raw quarterback, and a complete lack of talent on both sides of the ball...and won anyway, extending the P5 opener streak to 17 years and counting. A road win against Old Dominion was the Heels’ lone win until mid-November.

Notre Dame won 33-10 in Chapel Hill, Western Carolina allegedly showed up to play a game sometime late in the season.

SCOREBOARD: 23-27 vs. FCS, 11-18 vs. P5, 10-10 vs. G5.

We’re 2000 words deep at this point, but this rant was well-warranted. The Heels will travel to a Cal team on the rise to open 2018, face an ECU team that can’t be any worse than last year’s version, and host national champion UCF in the Heels’ home opener. The luck hasn’t quite turned yet.

An 11-18 record vs. Power 5 opposition is hella bad, though there was a significant hole from which to dig after the Bunting era. For the record, the Heels are 63-73 in ACC play in that time— 18-28 under Bunting, 18-22 under Davis/Withers, and a respectable 27-23 with Fedora at the helm.

The 10-10 record vs. G5 teams is just damn depressing. Three losses to ECU, and scheduling hell: Louisville and Utah teams that finished in the top-10 in 2004, another top-20 Louisville team, and the best Rutgers and USF teams ever to exist all semi-count in those numbers.

In 67 non-conference games, 12 were played against teams that finished in the top 20 of the final Coaches’ Poll. A lot of that was caused by reckless scheduling under Bunting, but more was caused by rotten luck. Home-and-homes with middling-at-least-at-the-time programs such as Rutgers, Louisville (twice), South Florida, South Carolina, and Utah all put the Heels in compromising positions...and the Heels compromised.

Just go ahead and hit the ‘over’ for Cal, ECU, and UCF.