When North Carolina coach Larry Fedora met with his team before the start of preseason practice, he and his players outlined a list of four clear goals, tangible pursuits that contrasted the usual cliché of taking a season one game at a time.
The grandest of the Tar Heels' goals was to win the ACC championship, something that no UNC team has done since 1980. The possibility of achieving that goal ended in the middle of November, along with UNC's goal of repeating as Coastal Division champions.
A loss at Duke on Nov. 10 brought an end to another goal, too: that of winning the mythical state championship. And so now the Tar Heels, who on Friday play here against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, have but one goal still alive from their early-season list.
It's to win their final game, to end the season on a positive with a victory, and it's something UNC hasn't done since 2013. The Tar Heels then defeated Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, and afterward they spoke of carrying the fruits of that win into the off-season, and into the next season.
But the next season brought misery and, after an ugly loss against Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl, a 6-7 finish. The agony of the 2014 season helped inspire the turnaround that happened a year ago – the 11 victories, the Coastal Division championship and all the momentum that came with it.
Even after ending last season with two consecutive defeats – against Clemson in the ACC championship and against Baylor in a bowl game – the Tar Heels' trajectory couldn't be questioned. It is less certain now, though, after a disappointing November of lost opportunity and squandered chances.
The importance of the Sun Bowl, then, is magnified. This isn't where Fedora and his players expected to be in early August, when they formed those goals. But now this game offers their last chance at a measure of redemption, and their final opportunity to accomplish something they set out to do.
“It's another opportunity to come out and go out right in the last game of the season,” Bug Howard, the senior receiver, said earlier this week. “And get Carolina back on track where it should be.”
Among Fedora and his players, there is a sense that the Tar Heels lost their way, at least on the context of this particular season. Perhaps it began to happen during a rain-soaked 34-3 defeat against Virginia Tech on Oct. 8, when the teams played through tropical storm-like conditions on the outskirts of Hurricane Matthew. Maybe there were other smaller signs along the way.
By the second half of the defeat at Duke, though, it was clear that UNC had lost some of the magic – and basic ability to execute plays, especially on offense – that had carried it through the majority of the past two seasons. And then came a 28-21 defeat against N.C. State to end the regular season.
When Fedora met with reporters here on Thursday for a pregame press conference at a downtown El Paso convention center, he sounded energetic and enthusiastic. He sounded excited, and said all the right things about how his players were energized, too, to play in this particular game.
The proof will come on Friday against Stanford. The Tar Heels sputtered late in their loss against Duke, and early in their defeat against N.C. State. And though the Sun Bowl was nowhere to be found on UNC's list of preseason goals, the game “is important for us,” Fedora said.
“We get to play a great opponent and we want to finish on a really high note,” Fedora said. “Because we just didn't play the way we wanted to in the month of November.”
The trip west has offered the Tar Heels the chance to reset themselves, in a way. There's still a “bad taste,” Howard said, that lingers after how the regular season ended, but the past several days have also brought their share of game-related diversions.
When UNC landed at the El Paso airport on Christmas night, the team was met by locals who greeted the team with a Mexican fiesta, replete with a sombrero that Fedora wore, smiling. There has been a trip to a children's hospital and Fort Bliss, the largest (by land) military base in the country.
On the base, the Tar Heels received tours of tanks and shot guns. On Wednesday night, the team rode a bus about 35 miles into the desert for dinner at a steakhouse on a ranch. Overall, though, Fedora has attempted to keep the focus where he believes it belongs. His players haven't needed reminders.
“I've been watching a lot of bowl games,” said T.J. Logan, the senior running back, “and last thing I want to do is go out there and not finish the right way. And we had a goal this whole year just to win our last game, no matter where it was at.”
And so here UNC is, in the vastness of west Texas. Their most recent bowl victory, in 2013, didn't portend what was to come, just like that forgettable loss against Rutgers the next year offered no foreshadowing of the 11-win season that followed.
Still, the Tar Heels arrived here searching. For the kind of offensive execution that defined most of their success during the first half of the season. For the never-say-die will that helped carried them to comeback victories against Pittsburgh and Florida State.
Fedora earlier this week contemplated the concept of momentum – how much a bowl game matters in building it. He wondered if a victory in a postseason exhibition game could have a carry-over effect.
“I think it can,” he said after thinking it over. 'I think you spin it however you want to spin it, you know. And you can go into the off-season with a good feeling, or you can go into the off-season with a bad feeling.”