Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.
On September 27, 2018, the one-win North Carolina Tar Heels took on No. 16 Miami in the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. Led by former head coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels were competitive for the first quarter of this game, and went into the second quarter down 14-10. That is when the Hurricanes blew the door off, and when it was all said and done the Heels limped back to Chapel Hill after taking a 47-10 throttling. We saw that gaudy turnover chain SIX times, Miami was able to do whatever they wanted on both sides of the ball, and well...we had Nathan Elliott at quarterback. Times were dark. Times were really, really dark. So dark that the Heels would go on to finish their final season in the Larry Fedora Era with two lonely wins to show for it.
Fast forward to today, and the Tar Heels under Mack Brown have just completed a season that included a dominating 62-26 win over No. 10 Miami, two more convincing wins against AP top 25 opponents in Virginia Tech and NC State, and a very impressive performance against No. 5 Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl that could’ve easily been a win if some of the best players on the team didn’t opt out (which I am ok with, for the record). This team finished the season 8-4, but their record could’ve easily been 10-2. If someone would’ve told me back in 2018 after the season ended that they would go from a 2-9 record to going 8-4 with an Orange Bowl appearance, I would’ve laughed until I passed out. Yet here we are.
Next year things are only supposed to get better, which is hard to imagine. Mack Brown is losing a good amount of talent in Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dazz Newsome, and Dyami Brown, but they’re gaining players like Keeshawn Silver, Power Echols, Drake Maye, Raneiria “Rara” Dillworth, and most recently Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler. 247Sports and ESPN have the Tar Heels ranked 6th and 7th, respectively, in their way-too-early preseason rankings, and Bleacher Report has them ranked 14th. Assuming the truth is within this range to start the season, it all translates to one thing and one thing only: the Tar Heels have officially made it into the national spotlight, and it only took Hall of Fame head coach Mack Brown two seasons to get there.
There are of course two huge questions for this football team that must be answered before we even begin to think about the College Football Playoffs: can this team win the Coastal, and can this team beat Clemson? I think answer to the first questions is a loud yes. Truthfully this will be UNC’s division to lose, as experts predict that Miami is actually trending down going into 2021. D’Eriq King’s recovery from his torn ACL will likely dictate whether it will be a race with the Hurricanes into December, or if the Heels will be miles ahead by the time he comes back.
As for Clemson, I have to answer the question with as much honesty as possible: I have no idea. Without Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Dabo Sweeney’s team is still expected to be a CFP contender which should surprise nobody. However, consider this: Ohio State, who played just six games before they took on the Tigers, won in convincing fashion to go onto the national championship game. Clemson’s defense carried a large amount of the blame, as they just weren’t built to deal with Justin Fields and that high-powered offense. Thankfully for the Tar Heels, they aren’t too shabby in that department either.
So, basically where I’m going with this is that 2021 could be the year that the Tar Heels take another step forward and get into the College Football Playoffs. It will not be easy, it is far from guaranteed, and there are plenty of obstacles in the way (like Notre Dame being on the schedule), but this team has never looked more ready to stand up to the challenge. Mack Brown and his staff have done a masterful job of turning a team that was recovering from disaster and pain into one of the best football programs in the country, and yes I’m saying that with my chest. What’s even more exciting is that this is only the beginning.
I hope that UNC has a solid budget for Carolina blue bulbs, because we are going to be seeing the tower lit up a lot over the next few years.