If you’ve never seen the movie Groundhog Day, you should go watch it right now. Seeing Bill Murray relive the same day over and over again is comedy gold. Unfortunately, it’s also what the Carolina football program is starting to feel like, where fans are forced to experience the same type of season every year.
Not sure about you, but I’ve fallen for the trap every year: this is the season the sleeping giant awakens. The Carolina blue kool-aid is just too good not to drink. How’s the saying go? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 21 times, shame on me.
That’s how many seasons it’s been since the outstanding 1997 squad went 11-1, blew out Virginia Tech 42-3 in the New Year’s Day Gator Bowl, and finished the season ranked 6th nationally in the AP poll. It was also the final season of Mack Brown 1.0 as we all know greener pastures beckoned in Texas.
I considered giving a pass to the Marquise Williams-led 2015 Heels that reeled off 11 straight wins after dropping the opener to South Carolina in the Belk College Kickoff and coming this close to winning an ACC Championship were it not for a phantom offsides penalty on a recovered onside kick. (By the way, how has Charlotte become a house of horrors for UNC football??). Of course, similar to recent iterations, that season closed with a loss to Clemson in that championship game followed by the Tar Heels getting run all over by Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl to finish 11-3.
So why does this keep happening? Every preseason Mack leads us to believe that this year will be different. This year UNC football takes the next step. This year Carolina gets to that next level. Well, a new level has definitely been reached, and it’s a new low for the apathy level of the fanbase. As an attendee of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, it was not so much shocking but borderline embarrassing to see 80% West Virginia fans far outnumbering UNC, a school located only two hours away. For those Tar Heels who were there cheering admirably loud, I salute you.
Some fans think it’s time for Mack Brown to hang it up. It could be argued that, as frustrated as the fanbase may be, the program itself is better off in the Mack 2.0 era than it was before his return. The head coach just brought in his fifth straight top 25 recruiting class. Four-star talent has become the norm not the outlier as it was under Larry Fedora. The problem lies with the question of whether or not that talent is being developed adequately enough; especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Another sore subject for fans, and rightfully so, is said defense. It’s an issue that has continued to plague and frustrate and infuriate since the Fedora regime. If the talent is there, where is it all going wrong? There is widespread desire to move on from defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, but who would the Heels bring in as a replacement?
Irritation also abounds among fans in regard to players opting out of bowl games, to old-school fans in particular. It’s certainly not something that only affects Carolina; no school is immune to it. And no one can begrudge a young athlete wanting to safeguard his future and not risk career-impacting injury, especially in what some would call a “meaningless” bowl game. However, the flip side is that bowl games do matter to the teammates who are participating, the prospective recruits, and the football program as a whole. I have heard multiple former players say that when you sign up to play a season and commit to a team, if you are healthy you do it all to the fullest. Maybe that is an antiquated perspective but for now, unless a team makes the college football playoffs, this will continue. It all speaks to the current state of college sports and it’s not changing anytime soon.
In four of the last five seasons, Carolina has five or more losses. It has also lost four consecutive bowl games. Losing to NC State in the season finale, as has occurred three straight times, also leaves the fanbase extremely bitter and only hurts enthusiasm heading into bowl season. Plus, no one wants to hear the crap that comes out of Dave Doeren’s mouth anymore.
So where does it all go from here? Changes need to be made. Otherwise it will be deja vu all over again. If someone asked you before the season if you would be happy with an 8-5 season you’d probably just shrug and give a ‘meh’ but if they provided the caveat ‘after starting 6-0’ they’d likely get an ‘aw hell naw!’ Such is the present collective mindset. If you are a ride or die Tar Heel football fan, just be patient, wait for the next batch of kool-aid, and like Bill Murray says in Groundhog Day, “Don’t drive angry.”