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UNC Football: The Pressure of Perfect

Coming to terms with a strange new figure in the loss column

NCAA Football: Virginia at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

I was at the game on Saturday. If you need someone to blame, you can blame me; this was the first game all season that I got to attend in-person, and (luckily for our Heels) very likely also the last. After Virginia opened the scoring on a drive kick-started with stellar field position yielded by what felt like a six-yard punt, my cousin turned to me and told me that he had been worried about this game. I nodded, but I told him that I’ve never been too terribly worried about a likely-scripted first drive, even while tamping down the creeping fear that maybe he was right.

A few dropped passes later, a few more woeful punts from the foot of the put-upon backup punter, and it began to sink in. I hoped fervently for halftime adjustments that never appeared, despaired as Virginia’s quick-tempo offense nickle-and-dimed its way down the field to put points on the board, while the Tar Heels erstwhile high-powered offense remained unable to flip the field or do much of anything.

It’s hard to win a game, against any opponent, when they start multiple drives already in plus territory (or near to it as makes no difference). It’s a dangerous thing to let a team who’s endured some bad bounces this season begin to believe. It’s perilous, wearing that beautiful shade of blue, to be perfect.

Carolina football claims one (1) undefeated season, a few years ago in 1898. After last week’s toppling of our Tar Heels, only nine teams remain unbeaten out of the 130-some that started the 2023 season with a clean loss column. The built-in weirdness, the variance that makes college football so much fun to watch also makes it agonizing when your team loses an inexplicable game. It’s a feature, not a bug, but occasionally that feature seems to be purposefully created to draw Carolina blue blood.

For many Tar Heel fans (like my cousin), this felt like an inevitability. The past few years have taught us to constantly wait for the other shoe to drop, for the rug to be pulled leaving our lofty hopes in a heap at our feet. It happened against Georgia Tech last season, preempting a shambolic end to the season that saw a four-game skid drop the Heels out of the Top-25 picture altogether before a squeaker loss at the hands of Oregon in the vaunted Holiday Bowl sent the team home for good.

This team, however, isn’t that team. I believe this team is better than last year’s edition, and I think will be able to bounce back from this disappointment. There’s another side of letting that lovely zero slide out of the loss column, a slight exhalation and release of pressure. That amost-imperceptible relief can be channeled constructively, can spur a team to play better and refocus for the home stretch of the season, can allow those players that strap up every Saturday to loosen up and just play ball.

It’s impossible, on a long enough time scale, to be perfect. A blemish in the regular season, regardless of to whom or how it happened, doesn’t have to be the end of everything. The sun will still rise, as it did on Sunday morning and will do again next Saturday, and it will still be a great day to be a Tar Heel. There’s still a path to the ACC Championship for this team.

The only thing left to do now is to figure out whether this is the end, or just the beginning.