For nearly a year Larry Fedora had walked into meetings with his football team at North Carolina and opened them with the same phrase, a reminder of what the team wanted to accomplish: “Coastal Division champs, state champs.”
The past two weeks have rendered those goals obsolete. The Tar Heels on Nov. 21 won the ACC’s Coastal Division with an overtime victory at Virginia Tech. And then they won the mythical state championship this past Saturday with a victory at N.C. State
After that one, Fedora said he’d meet with his players on Sunday and set a new course for something of a new season – the postseason. And so the Tar Heels gathered and, for the first time since January, set new objectives.
“What it came down to was having goals for things that we can control,” Fedora said on Sunday, the day after his team’s 45-34 victory at N.C. State. “And so our goal is to win the conference championship – that’s one of them – and the other is to make sure we win our bowl game.”
UNC hasn’t won an ACC championship in football since 1980, which was the last time, before this past Saturday, that the Tar Heels had gone undefeated during the regular season in the ACC. But now the Tar Heels’ first ACC championship in 35 years in within reach – only one victory away.
UNC on Saturday will return to Charlotte, the site of its only loss – the 17-13 defeat against South Carolina at the start of the season – for the ACC Championship game. UNC will play against a Clemson team that is atop the Associated Press top 25 poll and the College Football Playoff Rankings.
Making the playoffs isn’t among UNC’s goals, Fedora said, because of how little control the Tar Heels have over it. They were No. 14, and the lowest-ranked one-loss team from a Power 5 conference, in the latest playoff rankings that came out last Tuesday.
Fedora has said in recent weeks that he hasn’t been paying attention to the playoff rankings but said he would look at them “for the first time” when the new rankings are released Tuesday.
“It’s not going to matter if we don’t take care of our business this weekend,” Fedora said. “It really won’t matter. So all of our focus will be on Clemson, just like we’ve done every week. All of our focus will be on the preparation for that game.”
Fedora didn’t hesitate, though, when asked if UNC, which has won 11 consecutive games, would be deserving of a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff with a win over Clemson.
What it came down to was having goals for things that we can control. And so our goal is to win the conference championship – that’s one of them – and the other is to make sure we win our bowl game.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
“If we beat the number one team in the country,” Fedora said, “which Clemson is the number one team in the country, and it’s a consensus number one and they’ve been number one for a long time – I believe that if that happens our team is deserving, yes.”
That UNC is even in this position – preparing for the ACC Championship game and in the discussion for the College Football Playoff – reflects how far the program has come during the past year. A year ago at this time the Tar Heels were 6-6 and waiting to learn which second-tier bowl game they’d be playing in.
Now they’re ranked eighth nationally – their highest ranking since 1997 – and are preparing for a nationally-televised conference championship game in prime time on Saturday night against the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
Fedora said on Sunday he didn’t yet know all that much about Clemson, outside of what he’d seen of the Tigers while preparing for other opponents. He knows about a Tigers offense that he described as “explosive.” And about a defense he characterized as “stingy.”
His more serious study of Clemson had yet to begin, though.
“I have not had a chance to really look at them yet,” Fedora said during a conference call with reporters. “I ought to be doing that instead of talking to you guys.”
The Sunday teleconference was another little thing, another small responsibility, that came with winning the Coastal Division. Fedora said recently the number of interview requests he has received has increased, and there are bound to be some late nights ahead, too, getting ready for Saturday.
If not for the ACC Championship game Fedora and his coaching staff would have come together on Sunday and finalized a recruiting plan for the week. The coaches then would have started traveling, visiting high schools and prospects.
Instead UNC’s historic season marches on, its old goals complete and its new ones there to be made a reality. The Tar Heels won the Coastal Division two Saturdays ago, won the state championship a week after that and now they’re in position to do what no UNC team has done in 35 years.
Being here, Fedora said, in the conversation for the College Football Playoff and days away from playing in the ACC Championship, is proof of the direction of his program.
“(It) reaffirms the plan that we have for growing this program into a perennial contender is the right plan,” he said.