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UNC Football: The Varying Wakefulness of a Giant

Alternate title: The Repeated Smashing of a Gigantic Snooze Button.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Mayhem at MBS - North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I haven’t been sleeping all that well recently. It’s not an obvious restlessness, not the kind of wakefulness where you’re better off just getting out of bed and doing something productive with the cold hours between the witching hour and the first blush of dawn. It’s been a tossing and turning kind of thing, lingering far too long in that liminal space that should only be a quick stop on the way to better, more restful sleep. Maybe it’s the changing of the seasons, that disorienting shortening of days; maybe it’s just work-related stress, compounded by an inability to cut the tether to the computer that is always in the next room; maybe it’s simply my internal clock on the fritz. Whatever the cause, it’s frustrating; I’m sure everyone can agree with this much.

The North Carolina Tar Heels came into this season riding a wave of hype, cresting with Heisman hopes for quarterback Sam Howell and buoyed along by the promise of returning production. Even those talented ballplayers lost to Sunday paychecks over the summer didn’t do much to quell that swell of excitement that was painting the Heels as challengers to the throne in the ACC. I call myself a pragmatist, and generally I pride myself on being able to keep from indulging the Carolina blue homer that lives somewhere near my heart (excepting when I lean into it for comedic effect). Even with all of my professed self control, I look back at the preseason and can plainly see that I was swept up in the forecasts of the rising tide in Chapel Hill.

The only problem with waves? They crash. The slope of the shore forces the column of water higher and higher until the wave topples under its own weight, coming thunderously back down to Earth with a raw power capable of knocking oblivious tourists ass over teakettle with all the tenderness of a giant that doesn’t know its own strength. The power generated by the momentum of the water dissipates somehow slowly and suddenly; the water disappears into the sand, leaving high and dry whatever shells or children it happened to be carrying. The sound is soothing, sure; often I have found myself pulling a recording of crashing waves as a sleep aid on the nights when I feel like I have exhausted my other options.

The football team in Chapel Hill has often been referred to in the national media as a ‘Sleeping Giant.’ It’s a favorite pastime of folks who are paid to talk about college football to wonder exactly why this giant continues to slumber. On the surface, the argument goes, there is no reason the Tar Heels shouldn’t be the best football program in the state. A flagship university with an international brand; a school in the South that can boast incredible success on a national stage in multiple sports (shouts especially to the women’s soccer and field hockey teams); there are plenty of signs pointing to powerhouse-in-waiting. Other teams in-state have their own sets of obstacles blocking their rise to national relevancy: my Appalachian alma mater is remote, cold in the winter, and plays a specific brand of football (that I love dearly, don’t get me wrong). East Carolina fired Ruffin McNeill for whatever reason and will be recovering from that mistake for years to come. Wake Forest is a small (formerly) Baptist private school in Winston Salem, Duke has all those years of being Duke to contend with, and NC State is an unknowable quantity of varying quality, adept at self-immolating with little to no warning.

There were rumblings that the giant was beginning to stir. Coach Brown and his staff’s transcendent recruiting could have been mistaken for a massive eye beginning to crack open. The emergence of Sam Howell as the dynamic playmaking quarterback in the last two seasons was thought by some to be the alarm needed to finally wake the giant up. The Heels were dark horse candidates for the College Football Playoff leading into this season, riding the aforementioned wave into a preseason top-10 ranking. Even the season-opening loss to Virginia Tech could be partially hand-waved away; it was the first game after the weirdest season in memory, the first time playing in front of a college crowd for large swaths of the current roster, and the Hokies were simply better than we thought they were. Similar to a wave that breaks a ways off the shore before regathering strength for the last push to shore, the Heels continued to roll after that early setback, dispatching the next two opponents with ease.

One loss to a surprisingly good Virginia Tech team does not preclude Carolina from fulfilling the promise of the offseason hype. Two conference losses (so far) in this year’s middling-at-best ACC, though? There goes the crash. McKay wrote a great post about readjusting expectations after last week’s disappointing trip to the largest Delta hub in the world, and reckoning with finding ourselves deposited at the water line on the beach with the wave that dropped us rapidly fading into the hot sand.

I haven’t been sleeping all that well recently. A nap on a beach somewhere east of where I am right now sounds lovely, my ears filled with the constant dull roar of waves like giant footsteps crashing into the sand, one after another. That’s the best part about waves, though; there’s always another one coming, and eventually the tide will follow them in. The water level will rise, wave after wave and crash by crash, until the tide reaches your chair.

When that water hits, it may even be enough to wake a sleeping giant.