Let's get this out of the way early, up top: This hasn't been the season North Carolina expected. Or wanted. Or believed it was capable of producing.
If you remember, the Tar Heels received the most first-place votes in the Coastal Division in the preseason ACC media poll. And if you remember, coach Larry Fedora said then that “it's time” – time, he believed, for the Tar Heels to take their next step.
And so this, a 5-5 record after 10 games, is hardly what Fedora and his players were after when the season began. But this, a 5-5 record after 10 games, is commendable, too, given the considerable lows UNC has experienced this season.
Few things have come easily for UNC. Not even the so-called easy games did. The Tar Heels struggled to put away Liberty, nearly lost against San Diego State, suffered embarrassing defeats against East Caroilna and Clemson and Miami and looked like they were headed toward another on Saturday.
But UNC came back and won – a 40-35 victory against Pitt that was probably the grittiest of the season. No, it wasn't always pretty – as usual. Yes, the defense was abysmal for long stretches – as usual. Another week, another 500-plus yards allowed for the Tar Heels.
But they found a way. Despite trailing 14-0 and 21-7 early, and then 35-34 late, UNC found a way.
There has been a lot to pick apart about this team. The defense stinks (no other real way to put it, folks), the offense has been erratic, the aforementioned losses – at ECU, Clemson and Miami – weren't competitive.
Yet here the Tar Heels are, one victory away from bowl eligibility. That says something about a college football postseason system that rewards mediocrity. There are, indeed, a surprlus of meaningful bowl games.
But it also says something about UNC's character. It hasn't been a great season – or even a very good one – for the Tar Heels, and at times it has been fair to question whether they checked out of some of their less competitive defeats.
Somehow, though, UNC finds a way to keep coming back. There were likely a lot of doubters after Pitt took a 14-0 lead on Saturday, and then a 21-7 lead in the second quarter. Little by little, though, UNC kept cutting into the lead, kept coming back – and then it came back again, in the final minutes.
The result is a victory that brings the Tar Heels another step closer to salvaging their season. Two victories in their final two games – against rivals Duke and N.C. State – would go a long ways toward accomplishing that.