Carolina’s 2018 football season ended on November 23rd, 2018 with a 34-28 overtime loss to North Carolina State. When Carolina takes on State this Saturday, 364 days will have passed between last season’s game and this year’s clash, almost exactly a full year. And what a year it’s been.
A year ago, the Carolina football program was overshadowed with doubts and went into the offseason with more questions than answers. I truly admire those of you who found reasons to be optimistic that the 2019 year wouldn’t just be the newest episode in the same series. I’m ashamed to admit that I thought a two or three year rebuild was the most likely, and most optimistic outcome.
Looking back at the year since that State game, I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Starting with the hiring of Mack Brown and flipping Sam Howell from Florida State, Carolina football has unbelievably shifted the future of the program, more so than any team in the country. I went through every power five team to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating the point, and I was not. Teams like Minnesota, Oregon State, Georgia Tech can certainly make an argument, but this Carolina program isn’t even recognizable from a year ago.
We’re all about the positives here at the Tar Heel Blog, so we don’t need to go into detail of all the challenges facing the program from a year ago. It is easy to forget just how bleak of a situation the Tar Heels were in, though.
Fast forward to today and Carolina has an experienced head coach with a talented coaching staff, the best young quarterback in the ACC, and most importantly the Tar Heels are winning recruiting battles in the State of North Carolina. There is an energy around this program that hasn’t been there the last couple of years. I unfortunately wasn’t at the Miami game, but I’ve had multiple people tell me it was the loudest they’ve heard Kenan that they can remember. That doesn’t just happen because of one good game; Mack Brown and Sam Howell have people truly believing in the football program.
The energy around the program has manifested itself in one of the craziest football seasons in recent memory. Carolina was playing meaningful football in November with a chance to win the division. Even though it didn’t happen, being alive in the division that late in the season is an achievement in and of itself.
The goal all along, however, has been bowl eligibility. After all the crazy wins and heart breaking losses, the Tar Heels are one win away from returning to a bowl game. The fact that the one win they need is against State makes it arguably the biggest game the program has had in years.
Playing State for the chance to get to .500 might not be the College Football Playoff, but this is every bit a playoff game. Playing a one-game season would be a huge game no matter the opponent, but there is just something different about State week.
I’ve spoken to several Carolina athletes about how the State game is different from other rivalry games. The common sentiment is that they want to win every game, and playing someone like Duke brings out Carolina’s best because you know Duke is going to come at them. They CANNOT lose to State, though.
If you get beat by Duke it sucks but they’re a good team. Sometimes you can’t say the same for NC State, as bad as that sounds — if you lose to State there’s no excuse.
There is nothing in sports like the week of practice leading up to rivalry week. All of us were so frustrated with how last season ended, now imagine how the players felt. A lot of that frustration is associated with the folks wearing red up the road. Carolina has had to wait an entire year for a shot at payback, and the fact that for UNC, the stakes are the postseason makes it the biggest rivalry game in years.
In a vacuum, qualifying for the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl doesn’t make or break a season. We don’t live in a vacuum though, and making a bowl game is as much or more for the 2020 season as it is for finishing 2019 off strong. Teams that play in a bowl game get about fifteen extra practices in preparation for the bowl game. Most coaches treat those practices like the off season and only have opponent specific practices in the week leading up to the game.
For context, coaches are allowed fifteen practices during spring football. So teams that make a bowl game essentially get an extra camp’s worth of development.
There’s also a sense of pride about extending your season and going to a bowl game. When Carolina’s coaching staff are going into living rooms around the country they can point to tangible evidence that Mack Brown has the program going in the right direction. While playing in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl isn’t the end goal for this program, this season isn’t the end of the road either. Playing in a bowl game is a privilege that Carolina hasn’t had for a couple of years.
None of that happens without beating the Wolfpack on Saturday though. As great as the extra practices and program validation are, the players don’t need any more opportunity than they opportunity they have to beat State.
There are only seven players on the roster who were Heels the last time UNC beat State, and most of them were redshirting and didn’t even play. That’s something everyone in Chapel Hill is sick about, especially the seniors.
I don’t need to explain how intense Saturday will be, everyone knows that. This is the game that a lot of us have had circled on our calendars all season. During the game, though, I suggest that at some point you take a moment to reflect on the amazing season the Tar Heels have had, compared to where the program was 364 days ago. It truly has been the most remarkable year in all of college football.
Who knows, there’s a good chance this incredible year carries into December.