The start of the college football season is less than a month away. On September 1, the North Carolina Tar Heels will travel to the west coast to take on the California Golden Bears in a rematch of last year’s home opener. After stumbling to a dismal 3-9 record last year, the Heels are hoping to avenge last year’s season opening loss.
An early season victory over a Power 5 opponent could be the catalyst for an impressive bounce back season and calm some nerves. It would certainly serve as a warning that preseason predictions which slotted the Heels at sixth in the Coastal may be slightly off base. Yet, a loss wouldn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling or that another losing record is inevitable. This begs the question that many fans are struggling with as the season gets closer.
In 2018, as long as UNC can remain (relatively) healthy, what should define “success” for the UNC football program?
Defining Success in 2018
It’s safe to assume that the Heels aren’t a realistic threat to make the CFB Playoff this season. Barring another captivating 11 game winning streak, an ACC Championship appearance is also unlikely. So, what would give fans, coaches, players, and recruits reasons to be excited when the college football season officially ends in January of 2019?
A bowl appearance? (Yes)
Seven wins? (Eh. Maybe)
Another ACC Coastal title? (Nice, but not necessary)
Will a 6 win regular season be acceptable if three of those wins are against ECU, Duke, and State? (For some)
Should Monday’s announcement about player suspensions have any impact on expectations? (No)
All of those are interesting talking points or reasons for discussion. However, entering the 2018 I’d offer three objectives that must be met for a “successful” season. Anything less than these three goals would be an underachievement.
- Finish with an 8-4 regular season record
- Finish in the top 3 of the ACC Coastal
- Sweep Duke, ECU, and N.C. State
If those seem lofty, let me clarify I am not predicting any of those three things will happen. Just that they should be the benchmarks for success. The Greek tragedy (or, if you prefer, Greek comedy), that played out in front of our eyes every Saturday in 2017 should not be an obstacle to these achievements.
Note: This isn’t meant to be a defense or attack on Fedora’s future. I’m firmly of the opinion that this season needs to play out before anyone starts seriously thinking about wholesale changes. Last season I laid out the case that any referendum on the current coaching staff should be delayed until the 2019 season. I stand by that argument.
Putting 2017 into Context
To fully define success for 2018, context from last season is key. After losing six starters to the NFL draft prior to last season, including the #2 overall selectee Mitch Trubisky, a “rebuilding” year was expected. Most fans would have been ok with six or seven wins and a bowl appearance. Obviously, that did not happen.
I won’t say, “Oh, but last year doesn’t count!” You are what your record says you are. Last year UNC was a 3-9 team, even though they effectively lost an all-22 starting line-up of players before the midway point of the season. Inside Carolina stated that 77 starts and 232 missed games was the final total of missed action. Despite that, UNC still held fourth quarter leads against California, Louisville, and Duke. They lost to Miami and Virginia by one possession. Simply put, the Heels remained competitive.
It’s not a stretch to look at those results and agree that six wins with a healthy squad was a distinct possibility. If Andre Smith doesn’t miss the second half against Louisville, does the defense wilt? If Austin Proehl doesn’t miss the second half against Duke, does Chazz Surratt forget how to be a quarterback? With a fully healthy receiving corps, does Nathan Elliott struggle to produce offense against Miami and N.C State? Maybe. Maybe not. At a minimum, there’s enough reason to believe that the 3-9 record didn’t indicate how good UNC should’ve been. The talent was (and is) there for massive improvement.
Looking at the totality of the situation, if last year’s team was staring six wins in the face, then the same expectation should not be in place for this season. Last year was a mulligan. It was not a free pass to extend mediocrity.
With a stable full of running backs, a healthy receiving corps, and a fourth-year junior running the offense, the “rebuilding” excuse does not apply. A completely healthy defensive line and depth in the secondary means “learning curves” can no longer be a crutch. Adjustment periods to second year defensive coordinator John Papuchis’ scheme are a thing of the past.
UNC under Fedora
It is true there have been head scratching decisions (the disappearance of Elijah Hood in key situations) and seasons that fell short of expectations (2016). Frustration continued to mount after the perceived inability to capitalize on the 2015 ACC Championship game appearance. Those feelings simmered this off-season when the UNC head coach picked a rather odd venue to give a passionate defense of football and questioned the cause of CTE. (Questions, by the way, that are scientifically valid). That simmer slowly approached a boil as North Carolina’s main in-state football rival, UNC-Raleigh, has an early lead in recruiting rankings for the class of 2019. For some, after Monday’s announcement about the pending suspensions of 13 players, that water is running over the pot, off the stove, and onto the floor.
However, in six years with Larry Fedora at the helm, the football program has been more successful than the majority of other ACC schools. Some would argue not successful enough, but considering the looming threat of scholarship reductions or bowl bans that hung around until Oct. 13th, 2017, the results are largely satisfactory. It’s also understandable if you think that the football program is in a downward spiral and last year was the beginning of a trend instead of a hiccup.
Yet, last season was the first time the Heels had a losing conference record since Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill. It was just the second time they finished worse than third in the ACC Coastal. In that time, UNC also has two Coastal championships (2012 is not officially recognized due to a post-season ban) and enters 2018 averaging 7.1 wins . Prior to last year’s injury filled nightmare, they were averaging 8 wins a season un Fedora.
To reinforce that success, check out this tweet from ESPN’s David Hale. If I’m reading this correctly, since 2012, the Heels have the fourth most overall conference wins in the ACC and are tied for the second most conference wins in the Coastal. It can get a little tricky because of re-alignment, but the overall point stands.
In case you’re curious, here’s the in-conf record during the FSU-Clemson run (’12-’17):— Hidden Agenda Generator (@DavidHaleESPN) July 20, 2018
As SBN’s Bill Connelly pointed out in his UNC preview, only WCU (+16.4) ECU (+25.9) and Miami (-16.1) are expected to be blowouts, with the Heels landing at 2-1. That means 9 of 12 games are projected to be within one possession. That’s nine toss-ups where UNC has to go at least 6-3. That may not be as difficult as it sounds.
Duke hasn’t had a winning conference record in three seasons. Syracuse hasn’t had an overall winning record wince 2013. Virginia has to reach back to 2011 to find their last winning season. N.C. State under Dave Doeren finally won more than three conference games last season, and promptly lost their entire defensive line to the NFL draft. These are games that UNC must expect to win.
An expectation of 4-2 against a home slate that features the Techs (Georgia and Virginia), NC State, Western Carolina, Pitt, and Central Florida, is not unreasonable. Four wins at home provide some breathing room for an encouraging road schedule at Duke, Virginia, Syracuse, California, ECU, and Miami. If UNC can’t find four wins out of that not-so-intimidating group, then the program is in worse shape than many already fear.
It’s simple math. 4 home wins + 4 road wins = 8 overall wins.
Theoretically, that would also make the Heels a near-lock for a top-3 Coastal finish.
Note: The suspensions should have little to zero impact on the final W-L record. Only two starters, defensive ends Malik Carney and Tomon Fox, will miss time and at least one of them will be available for every game.
Sweeping In-State Competition
Most importantly, under no circumstances can UNC lose to ECU, Duke, or N.C. State this fall. It always hurts to lose to in-state competition, but for the first time in a decade, the program is the tipping point of maintaining in-state dominance. While at UNC, Fedora is 1-2 against the Pirates, 2-4 against Duke, and 3-3 against State (thank God for Gio). Coming off a 2018 top-25 recruiting class, which was the best UNC has had since Fedora arrived, the Heels have met constant disappointment with in-state talent for 2019.
Whether those difficulties are related to new restructured recruiting territories, coaching turnover, or other reasons that are only discussed in the depths of Kenan Memorial, the football program has found itself losing recruits to all three 2018 opponents. UNC has to even out those W-L records to gain some momentum and steady the proverbial ship. Not to mention, giving us fans bragging rights over family and co-workers for an entire year would certainly create some stability within the fanbase. (Because we all know Christmas is more fun when that happens).
Finally, the off-season headlines cannot be dismissed. Rightly or wrongly, the program appears to be lacking direction and leadership. Whether it was Fedora’s oddly timed comments at the ACC Kickoff, or the fact that 15 players sold team issued shoes, perception is reality in college athletics. The shoe-selling infractions are especially bothersome considering UNC just got out from underneath the NCAA cloud from previous allegations.
In May, six wins and bowl appearance seemed like a respectable redemption campaign. Now, a few extra wins are necessary to overcome what has turned into a unexpectedly negative offseason. Even the most staunch Fedora supporters have to admit these self-inflicted wounds aren’t easily brushed aside. At some point, the product on the field has to be worth the headaches off of it. That has not been the case the past 12-24 months.
Look. I’m not predicting what will happen. The Heels could finish with a 4-8 dumpster fire. I’m just making a case for what should define success for the upcoming season. If six wins and a bowl appearance will make you happy, you won’t get an argument from me. That probably keeps this coaching staff around in 2019 and gives them one last chance to prove 2015 wasn’t a fluke.
However, we all desire North Carolina to escape the 6-7-8 win purgatory that has historically defined the program. A few rebuilding years are ok. Every now and then a disastrous season is going to happen. In order to remain relevant, those years have to be followed by major bounce back seasons, similar to 2015.
It’s impossible to build momentum in a program if you are constantly climbing steps of incremental improvement, only to slip and fall back to the bottom of the staircase right before reaching the top. If the Heels want any realistic chance of being a consistent threat in the ACC, they have to force their way into the conversation when the rest of the conference ignores them.