There were 11 consecutive victories – the longest winning streak in a single season in school history – and dramatic victories at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, where North Carolina clinched its first Coastal Division championship.
There were dominant, record-setting victories against Duke and Miami, and a memorable, highlight-filled triumph at N.C. State at the regular season. There was a breakthrough, at last, in coach Larry Fedora’s fourth season.
And then there were two defeats to end it all, including the 49-38 loss against Baylor on Tuesday in the Russell Athletic Bowl – a loss in which UNC set records for its inability to stop, or even slow down, the Bears’ rushing offense. Fedora on Tuesday thought about how to make sense of it all.
About how to put the end of the season into the proper context given all the good that came before.
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“Guys,” Fedora said to a roomful of reporters, “we had a lot of positive things happen to this football team this year. And we came a long way when we think back to where we were January 6 and feeling about our program and what was going on in our program, from the outside.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this football team.”
During the past few months Fedora had often spoke of his team’s grit. He credited a lot of the Tar Heels’ success to their attitude – to their resiliency amid difficult circumstances in victories at Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.
Yet no amount of mental toughness could have helped UNC stop Clemson in the ACC Championship game earlier this month. And no amount of grit could have helped the Tar Heels figure out a way to stop Baylor on Tuesday from running for 645 yards – the most in any bowl game in history.
And so afterward UNC found itself in an odd position. The Tar Heels felt proud of what they’d accomplished – their 11 victories tied the school record, and the appearance in the ACC Championship was a first – and yet at the same time they tried to make sense of a difficult, demoralizing defeat.
“They just flat-out beat us,” Jeff Schoettmer, UNC’s senior linebacker, said of Baylor. “Today they were the better team. But just looking back on the year, it truly made my senior year special.
“I’m forever grateful to this university and I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of the senior class and the rest of the team, because we left a legacy here. We set the standard for North Carolina football for years to come, and I’m proud that my senior class was the reason for that.”
Among all that UNC has to replace next season it might be that – the steely leadership of a determined senior class – that proves most difficult. Schoettmer and fellow fifth-year seniors Marquise Williams and Landon Turner were the last remaining ties to UNC’s ill-fated Butch Davis era.
Those players arrived at UNC just in time to witness Davis’ firing. They were at UNC for nearly the duration of one NCAA investigation, and for the start of another. They were witness to memorable wins but difficult losses, too, and the adversity they’d experienced drove them throughout their final year.
The 2015 Tar Heels, as Fedora often liked to refer to his team, never lacked for motivation. Not after what happened in 2014, when UNC’s season ended with a pair of ugly losses that left players questioning the commitment of their teammates and questioning the direction of the program.
In one year UNC reversed the direction of the program. After a season-opening defeat against South Carolina UNC didn’t lose again in the regular season. The Tar Heels’ 11 consecutive victories vaulted them into the College Football Playoff discussion.
“Those guys in the locker room, the younger guys – the guys who are all going to be back, they know what it takes now,” Fedora said. “They know what has to be done. The classes that we’re recruiting, they know what the standard is. What they’re going to be measured against is this ’15 team.”
It’s a team that will be remembered for delivering UNC its finest season in 18 years. It will be remembered, too, for what it accomplished offensively.
The Tar Heels entered their bowl game ranked first nationally in yards per play. Williams, the quarterback, overcame some early-season struggles to thrive during the final three-quarters of the season.
Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, ran for nearly 1,500 yards and could be an ACC Player of the Year candidate next season. Quinshad Davis, the junior receiver, became UNC’s all-time receptions leader and Landon Turner, the senior offensive guard, anchored a strong offensive line.
And UNC could be even better offensively next season. The Tar Heels will lose Williams, Turner and Davis, all seniors, but they are expected to return essentially everyone else, including junior receivers Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer.
“We established something, we’re building something,” said Williams, who is likely next season to replaced by Mitch Trubisky, a sophomore who has had success in limited playing time the past two seasons. “And I’m excited to see what the guys bring next year to the table because they’re going to be greedy for more.”
Defensively there are more questions, even though Schoettmer and fellow linebacker Shakeel Rashad are the only departing seniors. UNC’s defense, was among the nation’s most improved, but it was no match for the offenses at Clemson and Baylor, both of which were significantly better than any other offense the Tar Heels faced.
Against Baylor, UNC was out-manned up front physically. The Tar Heels had difficulty, too, keeping up with the Bears’ speed.
Asked how the defense would approach learning from how the season ended, Donnie Miles, a junior safety, said UNC would “go back to the drawing boards and go to work.”
It’s an approach the Tar Heels used with success after the 2014 season ended. Back then, about a year ago, there was more uncertainty than there is now. UNC’s direction was in doubt and Fedora began a new year needing to repair various aspects of his program that had broken down.
He needed then to reunite a fractured team. He needed to make staff changes and eventually hired defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and the assistant coaches who turned around the defense. Fedora needed to make his players believe again.
After ending their season with consecutive defeats those players on Tuesday spoke of their belief that better days are ahead. Several said their overall success represented the start of something and that thought – that this season was just the beginning – provided comfort amid a painful loss.