In short, for the third year in a row the Wolfpack beat the Tar Heels. For the third year in a row the season ended in an embarrassing fashion. For the third season in a row the folks over in Raleigh get to bask that while the two programs are in similar places — stuck in mediocrity and never really sniffing the College Football Playoffs — they can do it with a coach that manages to get more out of less than the coach who has had an NFL-caliber starting quarterback all five years he’s been back to UNC.
So let’s just jump right into the final Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions of the regular season.
Cedrick Gray: This is going to be the only “real” one. Gray had to be all over the field on Saturday. He ended up with a total of 17 tackles — more than Peyton Wilson — including one for loss and contributed half of a sack. There’s been A LOT to complain about with the UNC defense this season, but Gray has been a constant stalwart and should get some sort of postseason recognition. One can only shudder at how bad it would have been had he not been able to play.
NC State Groundskeepers: So apparently at State’s turf management classes they teach you how to make sure that a playing surface can be turned into an ice rink so that the opposition can’t get their footing. There were multiple complaints about the quality of the field on Saturday night, and at first blush you want to joke about the field at a school that has this program. But, do you really think that it’s a coincidence a big reason Carolina had trouble getting started on offense was their inability to get a good footing on the field? Meanwhile the home school whose practice field is not that far away had the ability to work with that crew to plan for how to play? Credit to them, it goes to how one squad is thinking of the small details while the other clearly isn’t.
UNC Basketball: The fact that the team went 2-1 in the Bahamas, and did so looking like they had fight while having fun playing allows fans to quickly turn the page and put this smoldering wreck ending to the season behind them. If you’ve ever wondered why UNC fan is so quick to turn to basketball, just look at this season. With the potential to have the most enjoyable squad on the court since the 2018-19 season, it’s safe to say folks are ready to watch Tennessee come to Chapel Hill Wednesday.
Drake Maye: He was the Player of the Game when there wasn’t a lot to like, and he came back from an awful first half to at least give Carolina a shred of hope during the second half, but really this is about what happened around him rather than Maye himself. Maye had the spotlight to himself this week with Caleb Williams’ season already done, but between the bad field and the great defense from the Wolfpack, he goes out the same way Sam Howell did against State — except Howell managed to win twice against them. It’s very likely that was his last game as a Tar Heel, and for the hope he brought fans and the remarkable playmaking ability he has, he deserved better.
Gene Chizik: By the time you’re reading this it’s possible word will have gotten out that Chizik will be out of Chapel Hill, and if so it’s well-deserved. When you don’t have the depth on defense to where one player like Alijiah Huzzie being out causes that many problems, then there is a systemic and culture failure on your side of the ball. This says nothing about the lack of talent development and the fact that this best player was someone who came from the portal. 334 yards in the air, 170 yards on the ground, and eight straight drives to open the game where the Wolfpack scored in some form or fashion. This against an offense that didn’t have an established running back and a quarterback who was only playing because the last starter literally quit playing so he could preserve his redshirt. The current starter was being booed so lustily earlier in the season that their star defender had to tell fans to not boo. That’s who lit the Tar Heel defense up. It’s safe to say wholesale changes on that side of the ball are needed at a minimum.
Mack Brown: Former Tar Heel Blog writer Jake Lawrence had a thread on Sunday laying out the coaching situation at UNC. Brown has made it clear multiple times leading up to Saturday and after the game he’s not retiring. While he’s not the Athletic Director, the things that Mack Brown can do off the football field unfortunately play a factor. He’s a good TV interview, he has connections at ESPN, he’s at least made it to where UNC communicates with in-state coaches again, he will do the things to sell the program when he can, and he’s brought in money to get upgrades inside Kenan for the football players. While the squad has fallen short of expectations, it’s undeniable that the expectations that existed when he arrived versus where they are now are significantly different than the end of the Fedora Era. The Tar Heels will once again go to a bowl game, their fifth in a row, and from February to late April, highlights of Drake Maye in his UNC uniform will be all over ESPN and the NFL Network as teams try to decide where he’ll get picked in the draft.
The problem is that the future at UNC is in a tenuous place. We don’t know how good Connor Harrell will be, and as a three-star recruit he's inarguably the lowest rated quarterback to be a starter since the coaching change. After five years of high quarterback play, the expectations for Harrell might be unfair. Recruiting classes have started to drop off, the players that are there don’t seem to be developing in most positions — wide receiver and running back are notable exceptions — and the home slate next year isn’t exactly full of marquee names. Plus, Brown is having to consistently answer when he’s going to retire.
So what do you sell a fan base that has seen generational talent wasted and it about to leave? What do you sell when year after year the team has come up short in the clutch, keeps flailing right when getting to the edge and making it clear that there are real systemic issues in the program that at this point might not be fixed? Can fans get excited for a 73 year old coach having to start over on both sides of the ball?
This season was a chance for Brown to show he learned from the mistakes of Sam Howell and last season. In a lot of ways he did neither, and so it’s fair to ask why should he come back? Either way, hope is low in Chapel Hill right now and a big reason for that is the guy in charge of the team.
Omarion Hampton only touched the ball eleven times Saturday — nine rushing and two catching — as it was clear the Wolfpack sold out to stop him and force Maye to pass on a horrid field. It was arguably his worst performance of the season and it does make you wonder if he’s looking at what is due to come back next year and think to himself “does someone have a good NIL offer?”...Noah Burnette continued his remarkable comeback season going 2-2 in PATs including hitting a 45-yarder when the Tar Heels were penalized twice on the same two point conversion...The ACC continues to have horrid officiating, as you had inconsistent roughing the passer calls, inconsistent unsportsmanlike conduct calls, and a ridiculous situation where the Wolfpack got to kick a field goal at the start of the second half because they missed that twelve men were on the field during a running clock when the rules should be that the kick didn’t count and the points would have come off the board. The officiating absolutely didn’t cost Carolina the game, which makes their ridiculousness stand out more. At some point something has to be done.