North Carolina, like so many to visit Orlando, is on vacation. After a season in which they struggled for respect and shook off the yoke of decades of history, the Tar Heels no longer need to labor.
The hard work is over, the precipice crossed, the past officially the past. Had North Carolina beaten Clemson for the ACC title and squeaked its way into the College Football Playoff, the situation would be different. The Tar Heels would still have everything in front of them.
That’s not how things worked out.
Whatever happens Tuesday against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl is merely the dessert that completes a season that will be successful either way. A win is a bonus, a loss comes without demerit. They’re playing with house money.
Weighed against everything that came before it, UNC’s bowl game against Baylor can’t possibly measure up. It is a reward for all of that, with nothing of substance to be gained or lost. The hard work is complete.
Rebounding from the opening loss to South Carolina, putting together that 11-game win streak, coming back to win at Georgia Tech, beating Duke and N.C. State, battling to the end against Clemson – that was the hard part.
Playing Baylor? That’s the easy part.
A school-record 12th win would be remembered fondly, but this team has already done enough to be remembered fondly and for a long, long time. Nor would a loss put a damper on what the Tar Heels have accomplished. North Carolina earned the right to be here, win or lose.
Look back to a season ago at this time, when they collapsed amid visible dissension in a bowl loss to Rutgers in Detroit. The path that led them here began in the aftermath of that game, when this year’s seniors took responsibility for making sure it would not happen again. This season would be remembered for that alone, if nothing else.
Look back to September, after the loss to South Carolina certainly created the impression that this season would be more of the same, and yet it turned out to be something entirely different.
Look back to early in the second quarter at Georgia Tech, a place North Carolina had not won in almost 20 years, down 21 points. The Tar Heels came back to win that game, then won against Wake Forest and Virginia and Pittsburgh and Duke and Miami and Virginia Tech and N.C. State to clinch both the Coastal Division and the unofficial state title.
Look back to the ACC Championship Game, down 19 in the fourth quarter but battling to the final, controversial onside kick to lose 45-37 to Clemson, which in a little over two weeks may stand as the best team in the country.
Look back to a season that saw the Tar Heels’ defense go from one of the worst in the country to one that was, if not the best in the country, commendably reliable. Look back to the progress of Marquise Williams, who answered for his three interceptions in the loss to the Gamecocks – and his brief benching three weeks later – by putting together one of the great offensive seasons in recent memory. Look back to the other key senior leaders – guard Landon Turner and linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad – who played such a big role in the turnaround.
So much accomplished. So much to celebrate. So much to remember.
Weighed against everything that came before it, the bowl game against Baylor can’t possibly measure up. It is a reward for all of that, with nothing of substance to be gained or lost. The hard work is complete.
The Tar Heels have come too far for whatever happens now to make a difference. This bowl game may yet be memorable. This season will be either way.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock