North Carolina owes a large part of its success to failure, and owes its overall triumph to its lone defeat. It owes one of the best seasons in school history in part to one that was among the most frustrating.
During a winning streak that has now grown 11 games long – the longest in a single season in school history – a question has followed the Tar Heels: Where would they be if not for that season-opening loss against South Carolina?
How highly would they rank in the College Football Playoff Rankings? How different would the season look with a round zero in the loss column instead of the numeral one that offers a constant reminder of what could have been?
Perhaps the more appropriate question, though, is this: Would all of this have happened – the 11 straight victories, the Coastal Division championship, the appearance, on Saturday, in the ACC Championship game, where UNC will play Clemson – without that defeat against South Carolina?
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Would UNC be riding this high if it hadn’t had to learn to pick itself up amid another low?
UNC is on the cusp of its first ACC championship since 1980 because it has won as many games as any team in school history. But it’s here, too, because of that season-opening loss and, in particular, because of what happened after it ended, when a team’s leaders came together and said, in effect, enough is enough.
Jeff Schoettmer, the senior middle linebacker, began the conversation that early September night in Charlotte, where a team that was tired of losing, tired of disappointment, tired of failing, came back to its locker room after an ugly 17-13 defeat. Offensive lineman Landon Turner and quarterback Marquise Williams, two fifth-year seniors, offered some words, too.
We had our spring game in Charlotte and we were talking about how we were going to play in Charlotte three times this year – our spring game, the opener against South Carolina and then the ACC championship.
UNC’s Jeff Schoettmer
“Some guys’ heads were down, and as they should have been, but I just told the guys, look, we’re going to get back to Charlotte in December,” Schoettmer said earlier this week. “And we’d been talking about that even all throughout the off-season.
“We had our spring game in Charlotte and we were talking about how we were going to play in Charlotte three times this year – our spring game, the opener against South Carolina and then the ACC championship.”
So Schoettmer talked about that, about getting back to Charlotte. But he spoke more about how this season wouldn’t be a repeat of last season, which ended with seven losses and with players turning on their coaches, turning on each other and turning on coach Larry Fedora’s program.
The turmoil of last season led to a meeting in January after players returned to school. That meeting, which Fedora called so that his players could share their grievances and offer suggestions to change UNC’s direction, led to an improved leadership and more team unity.
And those things led to the response after the South Carolina game, when it looked like here-we-go-again: the start of another underwhelming UNC football season in a long line of them. Looking back, though, perhaps this kind of run should have been anticipated.
The Tar Heels played poorly against South Carolina, at least offensively. They committed three turnovers. Williams, the quarterback, accounted for all of them, and he threw two interceptions in the end zone. And yet despite all of that, UNC still only lost by four points.
In a weird way, senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad said recently, that defeat was energizing. The Tar Heels’ rebuilt, revamped defense had played well enough to win in its first game under new coordinator Gene Chizik. UNC left Bank of America Stadium feeling strangely upbeat.
“It wasn’t upbeat in the sense that, like, ‘Yeah, we lost,’” Rashad said. “It was upbeat in the sense that like, ‘Guys, look at all the mistakes we made and look at how good we still could have played at times.’ I mean, we made tons and tons of mistakes on defense and we ended up giving up 17 points. …
“It was like, something good can come of this.”
Fedora after that game reminded his players of two important facts. They could still win the ACC’s Coastal Division. And they could still win the mythical state championship. Those were, after all, the team’s goals all along, since the end of last season.
In the months since the South Carolina loss, Fedora has often cited his team’s grit and toughness as reasons for its success. Some of that grit was born in the months after last season ended. UNC created a lot of it, though, in the days that followed the South Carolina game.
Williams was “devastated” by his performance then, he said, but that didn’t last. When the team returned to Chapel Hill, Schoettmer said, “No one was hanging their heads.”
“It was positivity – and especially Marquise,” Schoettmer said. “He was upbeat and positive as ever, because he knew how good of a football team we could become.”
UNC followed the South Carolina loss with easy victories against North Carolina A&T, Illinois and Delaware, and then came a trip to Atlanta and Georgia Tech, where the Tar Heels hadn’t won in 18 years. Fedora dismissed talk of the losing streak. He said the 2015 Tar Heels had never lost in Atlanta.
It was positivity – and especially Marquise. He was upbeat and positive as ever, because he knew how good of a football team we could become.
Jeff Schoettmer on his team’s reaction to losing at South Carolina
Yet it looked like they would when Georgia Tech built a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. In that moment the Tar Heels remembered the scene after South Carolina, the vow they made that past failures wouldn’t define them, that this season would be different.
And so little by little they came back. And then left Atlanta with a stunning 38-31 victory.
Asked recently when he started figuring out when this season could be special – when he started realizing that his team was special – Fedora spoke of two moments. The reaction and the response to the South Carolina loss. And the reaction and response to being down 21-0 at Georgia Tech.
“Those two things were probably the biggest (turning) points,” Fedora said.
After the victory in Atlanta, UNC wasn’t tested – not in a significant way, at least – until a 26-19 victory at Pittsburgh in a nationally televised Thursday night game. Then the Tar Heels set records in back-to-back lopsided victories against Duke and Miami, before winning at Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s final home game and ending the regular season with a 45-34 victory at N.C. State.
Along the way, Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, said UNC had learned how to win in a variety of ways. In close games. In blowouts. In overtime amid one big party for the other team’s coach, like in the victory at Virginia Tech.
All these victories, though, have roots in the defeats that came before – and in one defeat in particular: the only defeat UNC has experienced this season. Where would the Tar Heels be without it?