DeCock: Tar Heels were champions, in their own minds at least

ldecock@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2012 

— North Carolina’s coaches and players kept repeating it over and over, as if saying it often enough might somehow make it so.

“To be Coastal Division champs, and that’s the way we’ll look at it, we’re very proud of this football team,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.

“To win the Coastal Division, that’s big for our program,” quarterback Bryn Renner said.

“We just had to handle our own business,” wide receiver Erik Highsmith said. “We controlled our own destiny and we won the Coastal Division.”

The ACC declared earlier this year that teams ineligible for the postseason will not be recognized as division champions, and the NCAA issued that punishment months ago. The Tar Heels have accepted that from the start, knowing that no matter what they did this season it was going to end Saturday against Maryland. Now that they earned the right on the field to keep playing, it certainly isn’t any easier to stomach.

“We never stopped fighting,” defensive end Sylvester Williams said. “We had many a chance to lay down. We had plenty of chances to give our season up, to say, ‘We lost to Duke, it’s over for us.’ No. We kept fighting.”

The Tar Heels completed an 8-4 season with a 45-38 win over Maryland on Saturday in what may have been the final game at Kenan Stadium for Gio Bernard and was what was surely the final visit to Kenan by Big Ten-bound Maryland and its uber-tacky Under Armour costumes for a generation. The better-than-expected crowd chanted “Gio! Gio!” and “ACC! ACC!” in the final moments, in awareness of both possibilities.

Except for 30 seconds on either side of halftime, when the Tar Heels played like they thought a win might send them back to Shreveport and gave up 21 quick points to the Terrapins, North Carolina largely took care of business. The defense was as porous and error-prone as ever – even against a quarterback who only four weeks ago was a backup linebacker – but Bernard cleared the 100-yard mark yet again, Renner threw for five touchdowns and freshman Quinshad Davis continued to emerge as a go-to receiver.

Davis’ emergence stalls here, because North Carolina’s season ends here. Unfairly. Unjustly. Unconscionably.

By deciding to accept a bowl bid last season with an interim coach and zero motivation – the disastrous and miserable trip to Shreveport for the Independence Bowl – North Carolina’s former administration doomed this season, with a fiery new coach and bright new hopes for the program, to irrelevance from the start.

The decision not to self-impose a postseason ban last year in hopes that the NCAA would look kindly upon the Tar Heels offered tremendous risk and little reward. This team, these 17 seniors in particular, paid the price when the NCAA, not surprisingly, included a ban among its sanctions.

“We dealt with it on the day we were told,” Fedora said. “We never looked back. It wasn’t like we were going to get here and be disappointed.”

Had the Tar Heels been eligible for the postseason, they would have won a three-way tiebreaker among 5-3 teams and faced Florida State for the title in Charlotte next weekend. That would have been good for North Carolina, good for Fedora, good for 17 seniors and good for the ACC, which will instead send 6-6 Georgia Tech out against the Seminoles in a furious storm of blech.

As time wound down, Williams helped engineer a Gatorade bath for Fedora, celebrating a Coastal Division title only they will acknowledge. The Tar Heels deserved better. They earned that much.

DeCock:, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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