Monday saw the news that North Carolina football will start the 2021 season in the top ten after they were voted #10 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. It’s just the fourth time in program history that they’ve cracked the preseason top 10, and the first time in the lifetimes of most (if not all) of UNC’s current roster. (Editor’s note: I think Tomon Fox might have been alive — barely — for the last time)
With the Tar Heels entering fairly rare territory for the program, let’s look back at what’s happened the other three times a UNC team has made the preseason AP top ten.
The last time it’s happened was not coincidentally the final year of the first Mack Brown tenure in Chapel Hill. Coming of a 10-2 season and ending the year in the top 10, the Heels were voted #7 to start the 1997 season.
The Heels lived up to that ranking, starting the season 8-0, reaching a peak of four, but settling in at five for the high-profile matchup against #3 Florida State on November 8th. They rebounded by winning their final two regular season games and then crushed Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl after Brown had departed for Texas. They finished the year at #6 in the postseason AP Poll, so not only did this team live up to its preseason expectations, they technically exceeded it.
The gap the 1997 team in broke in making the preseason top 10 was shorter than the one 2021 broke, as it had only been 15 years prior that Dick Crum’s 1982 team started the year at #5. That is the highest ranked any Carolina team has begun a season.
Expectations were high in 1982 after a 10-2 1981 and an even more impressive 11-1 season in 1980, which is still the university’s last ACC football title. UNC had a pretty solid year in 1982, but it didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations.
They began the season playing in the marquee game of the week, playing on the road at preseason #1 Pitt, who featured Dan Marino in his senior season. The Heels dropped that game 7-6, and ended falling only a bit in the polls. UNC held steady in the 10-12 range as they rebounded with five-straight wins. However, they followed that with three losses in five games to end the regular season, dooming Carolina to a 7-4 record. A Sun Bowl win over Texas allowed them to finish the year in the AP Poll at #18, but it was still a drop from where they started the season.
The biggest fall came in the third season on our list and the first time it’s ever happened for UNC: 1958.
Jim Tatum had taken over for his second stint back in 1956. The next year, he led UNC to their first winning record since 1949. That likely led to excitement about what the former national championship winning coach could do in ‘58. Like this year, the Heels began the 1958 season at #10 in the country.
While they picked up some solid wins during the season, it was bookended by four losses, as UNC finished 6-4. They had dropped out of the rankings after losing to NC State and Clemson to start the season, but had gotten back in after following that with six-straight wins. However, losses to Notre Dame and Duke knocked them back out. Also with the lower number of bowl games back in that era, Carolina didn’t get a bid to one, ending their season there.
That would also sadly be Tatum’s last season as UNC coach as he tragically died the following summer.
History shows us that top 10 Carolina teams haven’t always lived up to their ranking, but on the other hand, Mack Brown’s one did. Either way, it’s exciting that the program is in a state to get those expectations ahead of a season.