The consolation prize, for North Carolina, is a trip to west Texas, to an unfamiliar city and an unfamiliar bowl game, albeit one that is embraced by the people of El Paso. This wasn’t exactly what the Tar Heels had in mind back in August.
And yet, UNC coach Larry Fedora said on Sunday, “I don’t think the Sun Bowl is a letdown.”
He was speaking on a teleconference the Sun Bowl had organized. The sound quality wasn’t great, and neither was the organization. Reporters haphazardly directed questions to Fedora and his bowl opponent, Stanford coach David Shaw, who talked over and over again about El Paso’s hospitality.
Background noise muffled the answers. Someone who’d called in had left a radio on. Later, a reporter from somewhere in west Texas asked Fedora a question about UNC’s “winning streak” after the Tar Heels’ 1-2 start to the season. Except there was no winning streak, and there had been no 1-2 start.
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“I would say early on, I don’t know if we were clicking on all cylinders,” Fedora said, going along with it.
There was truth in his answer, at least. UNC lost its first game, against Georgia in the Georgia Dome, and didn’t appear to be at its best until around the middle of the season. And then, just as soon as the Tar Heels reached their peak they stumbled, ending the season with losses against Duke and N.C. State.
Had UNC won both of those, it would have won the ACC’s Coastal Division for the second consecutive year, and played again in the league championship game. Had UNC won one of those, it would have kept alive the possibility of second consecutive season with at least 10 victories.
But the Tar Heels lost both games, losing an early lead at Duke and never recovering from an early deficit against N.C. State. Since the end of the regular season, Fedora had been out recruiting, he said on Sunday, and there hadn’t been much of an opportunity to examine all that went wrong in those two games.
“We just weren’t able to overcome all the adversity that we created for ourselves,” Fedora said. “There were a few games down the stretch that we didn’t play up to our capabilities. We didn’t make the ordinary plays that we needed to make.”
And that’s how the Tar Heels wound up with an invite to the Sun Bowl, where it will play against Stanford on Dec. 30. Fedora and Shaw said all the expected things on Sunday. How happy they were to be going, how excited their players are to be headed to El Paso.
For Fedora, the Sun Bowl offers a trip back to his home state, though El Paso is nearly 700 miles west of his hometown of College Station. And besides, Fedora and his players had visions of traveling somewhere grander, anyway.
The Tar Heels began the season with four goals: win the Coastal, win the ACC, win the mythical state championship and win their last game. The defeats against Duke and N.C. State ended three of those goals.
“Any time you set goals and you don’t attain them or reach those goals, then I think you probably feel a little disappointed in yourself,” Fedora said. “And I think that’s what this team feels right now, because we didn’t achieve all the things that we wanted to.”
And then came the “but,” the part where Fedora noted that there’s still one goal remaining. The Tar Heels’ late-season slide eliminated the possibility of winning the ACC, or the division, and the state championship was lost on a brisk Thursday night at Duke.
Now there’s the Sun Bowl. An unexpected destination, given UNC’s preseason expectations, and perhaps an unwanted one – but now the only opportunity for Fedora and his players to accomplish one of the things they set out to accomplish.
“We know that it was a goal from the very first day of fall camp,” Fedora said, “that we wanted to be able to win our last game.”
His voice came through sounding a bit garbled. The teleconference hijinks went on, all part of the start of a consolation trip that now represents UNC’s only remaining hope for some measure of redemption.
UNC vs. Stanford
When: 2 p.m., Dec. 30
Where: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Tex.