It’s amazing how the same result-a bowl loss-can be interpreted in completely different ways a year apart. Last year, the Tar Heels showed out well against a Texas A&M team that some thought should have been in the College Football Playoff. That result was the spur for a huge amount of optimism going into the 2021 season.
The Tar Heels lost that game by 14.
This year the Tar Heels lost their bowl game by only three more points, but the mood is a complete 180. UNC was never really in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, and once they punted down eleven in the second half it was pretty clear that a severely shorthanded South Carolina Gamecock squad was going to get a wire-to-wire win. As great as everyone felt after last season, yesterday’s result is no doubt going to lead a lot of cliff diving about the program’s future.
So what did we learn yesterday? Let’s dig in:
This team thinks they are better than they are
It’s a pattern that has replayed itself multiple times throughout the return of Mack Brown: a team they should clearly dominate punches them in the mouth and they wait too long to respond. All of their losses-save the Notre Dame loss-were games where they were either evenly matched with their opponent, or the better team really, and instead the other squad came out to just force Carolina to prove it. Time and time again, they fell flat. That pattern showed up again against a South Carolina squad that had to rely on defense and a couple of simple gimmicks to produce some offense.
They punched early and got a quick 15-0 lead. It looked similar to the Virginia Tech game, and the Georgia Tech game, and the Florida State game...you get the idea. Time and again the team seemed to think their talent meant they were good enough to just step out on the field and bowl over teams. A month of hearing how depleted South Carolina was, plus their success on Early Signing Day, seemed to create enough press to erase the stink of the NC State loss, and it led to the team thinking South Carolina was just going to roll over.
Teams don’t just roll over, unless you’re the Tar Heels apparently. South Carolina gutted their way to a 6-6 season after many expected them to not even get to a bowl, and they were lifted by the promise of Spencer Rattler coming to the program. They wanted to make a statement and the Tar Heels wouldn’t listen until they were down 15-0. The press going into 2022 isn’t going to be as kind so here’s hoping that’s a trend they can reverse.
Sam Howell needs to move on
Don't get me wrong, if Howell decides he didn’t like how 2021 went and wants to come back for 2022, I’ll be thrilled. There’s every reason to think that their schedule next season will be easier to navigate-not easier but easier to navigate as there are actually non-conference games at the start-and with no other major losses on offense like last season, a motivated Howell could light record books on fire.
The problem is that Howell seems to have lost all confidence in the players around him. You wonder if the reason he worked in the offseason to be able to run the ball was because he knew just how bad the offensive line was going to be. While Carolina has some help coming in there, it’s not a sure thing that it’ll be shored up enough to be able to fully utilize him to the point where he can actually take the next step. Three years of holding onto the ball has created bad habits, and it’s time for him to have a pro coach get in his ear and learn that skill.
It’s really such a waste, too, to have the best quarterback in your school’s history end his career on that absolute joke of a season. It’d be completely understandable if he wants to come back, but it might be time to let him earn his money as a pro and start to wow scouts in individual drills instead of continuing to get pummeled behind this line. That said...
Mack Brown 2.0 has hit the fork in the road
A lot of folks were drawing a parallel to the 2015 Champs Sports Bowl when the Tar Heels faced a depleted Baylor team and were run all over, but Ryan Switzer had a much better comparison, and it’s important to bring up here:
After our 6-7 year in ‘14, there really was a sense of “look yourself in the mirror” type energy in our locker room. Players have to take ownership. Off-season has to be focused, distraction free, & purposeful to turn this around. Can’t be stressed enough. It can be done.— Ryan Switzer (@Switz) December 30, 2021
Unsaid here is the fact that after that season, Fedora realized that he needed to completely cut bait with all of the prior Butch Davis kids and focus solely on “his” guys. Marquis Williams was one of the few Butch holdovers who held down the fort, but prior to the 2015 season there was a lot of speculation that Williams was one loss away from being benched for Mitchell Trubisky. That combination of players looking in the mirror and the staff reflecting on where they went wrong after a successful 2013 led to that wondrous 2015 season.
It’s time for the Tar Heels, both players and coaches, to do the same. After three years it’s clear that something isn’t getting through to the players, and with two top-rated recruiting classes ready to play, most of the 2019 recruiting class gone, and pretty much all of Fedora’s holdovers gone, Brown needs to examine if the voices in the locker room should change to reflect the new team.
It’s easy to justify letting go of both coordinators, but it’s also worth looking deeper into the roster and wondering if part of the problem is how the voices are just diffused. The Tar Heels have two defensive coordinators, one responsible for the safeties and one responsible for the Inside linebackers. Jay Bateman has always been the public face, but Tommy Thigpin is the Inside Linebackers Coach and carries the Co-DC moniker. There’s also a separate Defensive line coach, and a separate Outside Linebackers coach. Phil Longo is the OC, but is also the quarterbacks coach. Stacey Searles’ offensive line just has...not..worked.
It’s clear that some of the success in recruiting is due to these coaches, but it’s also clear that this structure just can’t stay the same because the confusion is just too great. Mack Brown wasn’t going to throw anyone under the bus in his postgame press conference-between his experience as a coach in Texas and work for ESPN, he knows any little thing can blow up into a bigger situation so he’d rather take the criticism for seemingly tone deaf statements than create more drama-but to start the new year on the right note, he needs to turn around and “allow some coaches to pursue other opportunities.” Take some of the money you’re saving on him not being an expensive coach and put it towards coaches on the sidelines for the CFP this season. It’ll be a clear sign to the remaining players that he’s willing to admit where he can get better, and they should be able to do the same.