Ryan Switzer’s eyes gave away what his voice would not. Same for T.J. Logan’s wry smile. No matter what they say, no matter how they may argue otherwise, they clearly know there are few opportunities left in their careers at North Carolina to win a truly big game on a truly big stage.
Saturday’s 33-24 loss to Georgia was one of the last. Maybe even the last. The Tar Heels led by 10 points in the third quarter before this one slipped away like all the others did before it. There’s no guarantee there will be another chance to make this kind of a statement.
“I just know that this one hurts,” Switzer said. “Up 24-14 at one point, having it slip away. We’ve got some work to do. Looking back at last year, even though this is a new team, Clemson and Baylor, and Georgia now, hopefully we can end the trend of losing that big one.”
The two seniors and their teammates have played their way into this position, rebuilding the North Carolina program from the low point of the postseason ban that cost the Tar Heels a chance to play for the ACC title in 2012 and the scholarship restrictions that drained the team of depth and talent.
By winning the little games – even if, yes, there are no little games – by moving steadily forward, they earned the right to open the season in an NFL stadium against an SEC opponent two years in a row. They earned the right to play for the ACC championship. They earned the right to play in a desirable bowl game against a power-conference team.
And what do they have to show for all of that?
We’ve got to get them to bounce back.
UNC football coach Larry Fedora
Nothing except missed opportunities as the clocks on their careers tick down.
“There’s a lot of guys in there hurting because they wanted to win this game and they expected to win it,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “We’ve got to get them to bounce back.”
It’s not like the Tar Heels haven’t been close. They had that 10-point lead in the third quarter Saturday before Georgia scored 19 unanswered points. A year earlier, they held a fourth-quarter lead over South Carolina. Against undefeated Clemson in the ACC title game, they were a questionable call on an onside kick away from having a chance to force overtime. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, they faced a Baylor team that ran out of quarterbacks only to wilt on defense.
In Fedora’s tenure, the Tar Heels have a total of two notable nonconference wins: Over East Carolina in 2012 and Cincinnati in the 2013 Belk Bowl. They lost to East Carolina, at home and in Greenville. They lost to Rutgers. They lost to South Carolina – twice. They lost to Baylor. They lost to Georgia.
Still, to pin this on this group, or even Fedora, would be unfair. It runs deeper than that.
North Carolina hasn’t opened a season with a win over a power-conference opponent since beating Indiana in 1997. It hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent to open the season since beating Southern California in Anaheim in 1993, before anyone on this team was born aside from 27-year-old punter Tom Sheldon. Its last win over an SEC team was the 2010 Music City Bowl, and that was a gift from an officiating crew that botched the final sequence of regulation.
All of which is a long way around saying chances to play on a national stage like Saturday don’t come around very often. There’s an Atlantic Division crossover at Florida State in four weeks, but that’s still an ACC game. North Carolina’s other nonconference opponents: Illinois, James Madison and The Citadel. This was the “big one” Switzer referenced.
“Whoever we schedule we just show up and play,” Logan said. “That’s how I feel like it is. We got a couple big games this year. I’m not going to say which ones they are. Every game is big.”
North Carolina’s seniors know they might not get many more big ones. They may not even get another.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock