North Carolina lost their season opener to Virginia Tech on Friday night in fairly brutal fashion. Preseason Heisman contender Sam Howell and a fairly well thought of offense were completely held in check and put up just 10 points. For a team that went into the preseason in the AP top ten, that’s not great!
The nature and length of the college football season means that one loss can be a massive difference maker, and this game could throw a wrench in all of UNC’s goals. It’s certainly removed all margin for error. However to see what still could be done, here’s a look at some other notable seasons where the Tar Heels lost their first game.
UNC’s best season in the last 20 years actually started in a fairly familiar way.
Back in 2015, the Tar Heels lost to South Carolina on a Thursday night in arguably just as frustrating a way as they did last Friday. An offense that was otherwise excellent put up 13 points against the Gamecocks, with fans angry about decision making and other things.
However, the team then responded with 11-straight wins, and took home the Coastal Division crown. They kept it fairly close with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game before a controversial call kept them from a rally attempt. Less said about how that season ended, the better, though.
The 2015 season is by far the best one that started with a loss, and there’s a pretty big drop off after that.
The next year in 2016, they also started with a loss, losing to Georgia in Atlanta in a notable neutral site opening week game. They then reeled off seven wins in eight games, reaching a peak of #15 in the AP Poll. However, they ended by losing three of four. The 2016 season did lead to Mitch Trubisky getting picked second in the NFL Draft, tying the record for highest UNC selection. Everything about his career has been completely normal since that’s happened, too.
Carolina went into 2010 with fairly high expectations and again opened the season in a neutral site game in Atlanta, this time against LSU. However as you probably remember, 13 players got suspended for the opening game, and the NCAA mess at UNC began in earnest. The Tar Heels lost that game and the second one, but rallied to an 8-5 season and a very, uh, “memorable” bowl win over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
The Tar Heels actually stared with three-straight losses in 2001 in John Bunting’s first season. In fairness, two of them were to Oklahoma and Texas, who were both top five when the games happened. The fourth game of the season was an upset win over #6 Florida State, and Carolina closed the season on an 8-2 run, including a Peach Bowl win. Bunting’s tenure as a whole did not have quite as good a turnaround, though.
Another coach who lost his first ever game was Carl Torbush. In 1998, after taking over for Mack Brown, Torbush and the then #12 Heels lost at home to Miami of Ohio. That season turned out to be a winning one at 7-5, but didn’t come remotely close to the #12 preseason expectations, and Torbush did not live up to the expectations of the program that Brown left.
There also have been years where UNC came in ranked, lost the first game, and never rebounded into a winning team.
In 1959, #12 Carolina lost their season opener to #18 Clemson. They lost the next week too and started the season 3-5. They combined to beat Virginia and Duke 91-0 in the final two games to end the season at .500 at 5-5. However, the sparsity of bowl games back in 1959 meant that wasn’t even remotely close to getting to one, and was a big drop from the preseason ranking.
As frustrating as the loss to Virginia Tech was, it hasn’t eliminated UNC from any possible goals. The playoff might be a stretch, but it’s technically not impossible. If they do want to accomplish them, going off history, it’s going to be an uphill battle.