To put it lightly, the Tar Heels have a history of struggling when facing a formidable opponent in the first game of the season. Even in Larry Fedora’s best years, he consistently failed to get his team ready for week one. In fact, the last Carolina coach to not have this problem was none other than current head coach Mack Brown.
The last time the Heels defeated a power conference team in their season opener was in 1997 against Indiana, Brown’s last season in Chapel Hill (they haven’t done it on a neutral site since 1993 vs. USC). Fedora was 0-5 in such games (two were to South Carolina), Butch Davis was 0-1, John Bunting was 0-4, and Carl Torbush was 0-1. One game out of the year hardly tells the full story, but these numbers are indicative of the program’s inability to replicate the winning culture Brown had created following his departure.
Saturday’s matchup with the Gamecocks in Charlotte, NC presents a unique opportunity for Coach Brown to have his name on both ends of an unfortunate 21-year streak for Carolina football. To be clear, this game, the first such for Brown since 2013, by no means makes or breaks the season, nor does it have any bearing on whether or not he was the right hire. The reality is that after two consecutive losing seasons in which the Heels won a total of two ACC games, it’s a little unfair to demand instant success.
However, a victory over a respectable SEC foe right out of the gate would only further fuel the optimism Brown has generated.
Since taking over the job in November of last year, he has gradually injected more and more excitement into the program. It started with the construction of a promising staff, led by offensive coordinator Phil Longo and co-defensive coordinators Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen. Soon after that, Brown took to the recruiting trail with a promise to re-establish the Heels’ presence in the state of North Carolina, and thus far he’s lived up to it.
Not even a month after his hiring, Brown went out and flipped four-star quarterback Sam Howell from Florida State. Rated as the third-best dual threat QB and second-best in-state prospect by 247sports, Howell managed to beat out redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder this spring and summer to become the first true freshman in UNC history to start a season opener. And he was just the first piece of the puzzle.
Brown stepped in and immediately turned what was sure to be a meager recruiting haul into a top-30 class. For 2020, he has amassed the 18th-best class in the country with more work left to be done. Between both classes, he has secured 22 commitments from homegrown prospects.
For more on Brown’s in-state recruiting success, check out our own Jake Lawrence’s full breakdown here.
All of this to say, Mack Brown has launched a train that’s shown no signs of slowing down. Again, no major judgements should be made regardless of the results on Saturday, but a win sure would be a great way to signify the “Return of the Mack.”