The last two seasons didn’t start as well as we had all hoped. In fact, it was a complete train wreck. In 2015, Marquise Williams threw three costly interceptions against South Carolina in Bank of America Stadium, each one an order of magnitude more infuriating than the last. That loss kept the Heels out of a New Year’s Six bowl. In 2016, the Heels marched into the Georgia Dome and held a ten point, second half lead, quickly extinguished by Georgia’s Nick Chubb and a flag on the play.
They were tough to watch. Save for a few scoring drives here and there, Carolina looked shaken and out of sync—really out of sync. What would go on to be historically great offenses looked pedestrian, if that, in these two games. The Heels gained 46 fewer yards (while scoring only 13 points) and 124 fewer yards than their respective 2015 and 2016 season averages. So, besides the first game learning curve, what happened?
Well, let’s put it this way: if the games were in Chapel Hill, would Marquise Williams have thrown those interceptions? Would the defense’s attempts to slow down Nick Chubb (who rushed for 222 yards that game) been as futile? Impossible to know, but it’s hard to imagine our boys being so rattled at Kenan.
Instead, they got eaten up at neutral sites that were not actually neutral sites—they were away games. The Georgia game especially featured a massive home field advantage for the Bulldogs against a team whose fans already do not travel well when it comes to football, and it was a really frustrating game to watch.
Why not a home and home? Rest assured, a win against would’ve made for a very different season. Instead, what we got was a second-half meltdown in front of 70,000 fans. It was as loud as a Falcons game.
I’m not advocating for cupcake openers. Early season challenges are important. They’re a good measuring stick for what is to come and what can change. UNC will be opening at home against Cal on September 2nd, a fine team who should prove to be an adequate first challenge for this untested UNC team. Every fan should be pleased with that opener.
I’m not even against neutral field openers. There is, in fact, a need for them. Associate AD Corey Holliday, in an interview with Tar Heel Blog, addressed that:
I think there’s two parts. Obviously, as a student athlete, you love to open up at home in front of your family and friends in a comfortable environment, but it’s also about being a part of the University of North Carolina where we only have 60,000 seats. So those neutral field games sometimes give us extra revenue that we wouldn’t usually get from a home opener. So you gotta balance it out. I think our AD, Bubba Cunningham, and Coach Fedora do a great job of making sure we don’t do it every year but we do it enough that we can get the financial benefit from it, as well as the motivating factor of our players opening up against a fairly good team at a neutral site. So with those two things combined, there’s a place for it but obviously we love to play in front of the Tar Pit at home.
With finances an issue and football attendance down, it’s easy to see the appeal of a neutral site opener, even if it might as well be an away game. But the fans are always going to be preoccupied with winning, and, in enemy territory, the Heels have stunk it up their last two season openers. Don’t anticipate that again—with 60,000+ fans cheering them on, expect the Heels to come out swinging on September 2nd.