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UNC Football: Recalibrating Expectations

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Hopes of a CFP berth are gone. Where does Carolina football go from here?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Mayhem at MBS - North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Carolina fans are frustrated, and rightfully so. 2021 was supposed to be a distinct launching point for the Tar Heel football program. Fresh off an Orange Bowl berth and with a Heisman-caliber quarterback guiding an offense with intriguing weapons and a fully intact O-line, the sky was the limit.

Reality hasn’t matched expectations. But maybe our expectations were the problem from the beginning. UNC was never a national powerhouse in college football. Even during the supposed halcyon Butch Davis era, the Tar Heels finished 8-5 for three consecutive years. Hardly program-lifting records.

After the malaise of Larry Fedora’s era (with a declining win total in the last three years, culminating in his final 2-9 season), Mack Brown, at the ripe young age of 67, breathed new life into the program. In his first season, despite a 6-6 regular season record, the Tar Heels did not lose a game by more than a touchdown, and was within a failed 2-point conversion of beating a Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson at Kenan Stadium.

Last season, the offense was an absolute juggernaut, but the Tar Heels had a nasty habit of losing to inferior teams on the road (I’m looking at you Florida State, Virginia) and did not have the sufficient talented-depth to go toe-to-toe with Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Elite recruiting is addressing the second concern. Coaching may be affecting the first.

Mack Brown was a recruiting giant while at Texas, and has implemented a similar strategy at UNC. He built a wall around the state of North Carolina, plucking its best recruits, and has established a pipeline into the talent-rich Tidewater region of Virginia (equidistant to UVa and nearly half the driving distance to Virginia Tech). Next year’s recruiting class is filled with four-star talent, and headlined by five-star monster DL Travis Shaw. The running game looks to get back on track with a new “thunder and lightning” duo in Omarion Hampton and George Pettaway.

But with the current player roster, Tar Heel Nation (and some in the national college football media) may have been too quick to anoint Carolina as challengers to Clemson’s ACC supremacy. College football isn’t like college basketball, where one great recruiting class can make you a contender in the NCAA Tournament. It takes time for rosters to incorporate new talent into new systems, and there really is a building block process. Look no further than Clemson’s recent rise to see how this works.

Hopes that Sam Howell could single-handedly lift Carolina’s football program to the next tier were premature. He will undoubtedly go down in history as UNC’s best ever quarterback, both in tools and statistics. But he did not have the defense to help him win the games necessary to compete for conference and national championships. His best hope is to become UNC’s Tajh Boyd.

Prior to Boyd’s elevation to starting quarterback, Clemson was similar to today’s Carolina program. Good, not great. Wildly inconsistent. When Tajh Boyd took over the starting job in 2011, Clemson finished the year 10-4 and lost in the Orange Bowl (sound familiar?) before finishing 11-2 for the next two seasons.

Tajh Boyd led the way for Deshaun Watson, who lost in the 2015-16 National Championship to Alabama, before defeating the Crimson Tide for a national title the following year. Deshaun Watson led to Trevor Lawrence, and the good times kept going with another national championship over Alabama in 2018-19, followed by CFP berths in the last two seasons.

If Sam Howell is Carolina’s Tajh Boyd, then perhaps Drake Maye will be our Deshaun Watson. Our Trevor Lawrence probably isn’t even shaving yet.

So chin up, Tar Heel Nation. This season may feel like a missed opportunity, especially with Clemson down this year, but Mack Brown’s faster than expected success brought fan expectations to a boil when they needed to simmer for a bit.

Last year’s skill positions were streets ahead of this team, which is making Sam Howell look more ordinary. The defense, while improved, is still waiting for the young pups to gain their footing. If Carolina can take care of business during their home stand against Duke, Florida State, and Miami, they have a puncher’s chance of beating Notre Dame in South Bend, especially since they’ll have a bye week to prepare for the Irish. Wake Forest and Pitt will be nasty, and Carolina simply must take care of that trash from Raleigh, so there’s every chance the Tar Heels could finish the season with two or three losses, which at the end of the day is still forward progress.

Carolina football is not a failed project. We may have expected too much, too fast. But this team can still be a step in the right direction that brings the program up to the next level.