The voice belonged to Roy Williams, but the words might as well have come from Ron Rivera or Dabo Swinney.
North Carolina’s annual preseason media sessions under Williams sound a consistent theme set by the coach and dutifully echoed by his players. Last October it was doing the little things, finishing games rather than letting them get away in the second half. This year the narrative involves using pain – what the coach likened to “grieving” – sparked by the last-second loss to Villanova in the NCAA title game as emotional fodder.
“We reached every one of our goals except one, and that’s a pretty good year,” Williams says he told his players. “Let’s use this as fuel to motivate. Let’s use this as fuel to put in that extra time, to know that you were that close, but we didn’t get what we wanted.”
The Chapel Hill rallying cry more or less channeled messages heard earlier at Charlotte and Clemson. At each locale, in an odd twist of fate, the most prominent members of the Carolinas’ most popular team sports reached their respective 2016 championship games within a three-month span, only to fall short.
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The Clemson Tigers led entering the fourth quarter against top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 11, but lost, 45-40. The Carolina Panthers, winners of their first 14 games during the NFL regular season, were manhandled by Denver in Super Bowl 50 and dropped a 24-10 decision on Feb. 7. Finally, on April 4, Kris Jenkins hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to sink North Carolina’s men, 77-74.
Trying to draw inspiration from the ’16 disappointment was as predictable as posing for a team photo at the start of preseason practice. Frankly, there’s no reason to expect anything different. But as the Panthers have amply demonstrated, fresh experience getting to the pinnacle doesn’t mean you’ll again find your way to the top.
Teams do return to the Super Bowl a year after falling short. It’s happened seven times. All but two returnees lost again, anyway, Buffalo three seasons in a row (1993-95). The last vanquished squad to win the Super Bowl the next year was Miami in 1973.
Weight of expectation
Rivera’s club should serve as a caution for the Carolinas’ other championship aspirants. That’s less because Charlotte is in serious danger of posting a losing record than because the weaknesses of a squad favored to win its fourth straight NFC South title were visible only in retrospect.
Every team endures personnel turnover, including losing the occasional star player like cornerback Josh Norman. Every team also faces untimely injuries, bad bounces, lousy calls, bad execution. Management manipulations may misfire. Unfortunately, propelled by the near-invisible interplay of personalities, those factors can shift internal balances that are difficult to regain.
Or a team may simply find the air thinner when carrying the weight of expectation created by its immediate past success.
At this point last season Clemson was 6-0 and No. 6 in the AP poll. With close calls at Louisville and at home against Notre Dame, the Tigers were tied with Florida State atop the Atlantic Division. They averaged 181.5 yards rushing per game in 2015, sixth in the ACC. They stood second in total offense (a 448.5-yard average) and passing offense (267.0).
Going into its off-week Clemson was 7-0 and ranked third. Close home wins over Louisville and N.C. State left it alone atop its division.
Still, the ’16 Tigers seem more vulnerable than last year’s group, partially because their offense pales beside Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals can score at a spectacular clip, and Jackson is enjoying one of the most productive seasons ever in the ACC.
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ proud defense is allowing more rushing and total yards per game than 2015, but fewer points (15.4 versus 18.7). Clemson’s rushing offense also has declined compared to this point last October, although the passing offense directed by quarterback Deshaun Watson is more potent. “This guy is the real deal,” TV analyst and long-time coach Mack Brown said of Watson. “He can do it all. He can beat you with his feet and his arm. He’s as good as anybody in the country.”
Yet because Jackson has emerged, according to USA Today and others, as the nation’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate, Watson has receded in popular regard.
Last year we were wowed by Watson’s combination of skills, including the compilation of 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, an NCAA single-season record facilitated by playing 15 games. Now the junior’s excellence almost is taken for granted despite the fact his per-game passing and total offensive yards have increased. In the overtime win over N.C. State Watson completed three-quarters of his 52 passes for 378 yards, including the winning score on a 10-yard toss to Artavis Scott.
In fact, granting the unpredictability of what lies ahead, Clemson is halfway to a return to the national championship contest with only two road games left, including this coming weekend at Florida State. Should Watson take the Tigers to the finals in consecutive CFPs while continuing to play at a high level, help them post two straight undefeated regular seasons and perhaps win a title, he’d certainly merit consideration among the greatest players in ACC football history.
Exactly who belongs in those ranks is a topic of some fascination. There’s widespread agreement N.C. State’s David Thompson was the best basketball player the ACC ever produced, and he last competed in college in 1975. The identity of the league’s top football player, in contrast, leaves even veteran observers sputtering indecisively.
Three Florida State players won Heismans as ACC performers, but only Charlie Ward also was a unanimous All-American (1993). All three, including Chris Weinke and Jameis Winston, were voted league player of the year during a season in which FSU was declared the champion. On the ACC’s other three national championship squads, only Georgia Tech’s Ken Swilling was a unanimous All-America the same year his team won (1990).
When you consider multiple All-America and ACC honors, the competition for all-time greatest expands to encompass too many candidates to list here, among them Big Four products Clarkston Hines of Duke; North Carolina’s Dre’ Bly and Julius Peppers; N.C. State’s Dennis Byrd and Jim Ritcher; and Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith. Add to that list the four players besides Ward who were selected twice as the conference’s player of the year: Clemson’s Steve Fuller, UNC’s Mike Voight and Don McCauley and N.C. State’s Roman Gabriel.
With another title-game visit, Watson, the 2016 ACC player of the year, surely would belong in that elite company.
As for the region’s other program on the rarefied rebound, the 2016-17 Tar Heels won’t face the level of expectations that confronted either of the Carolina felines, the Panthers and Tigers. Ranked No. 6 by coaches entering the season, UNC isn’t favored to win the ACC or NCAA titles. Williams spoke as much to the media about players who’d graduated as of those coming back.
Over the years, 10 ACC men’s basketball squads failed in a trip to the Final Four, only to get back the following season. Just four of those teams actually returned to win an NCAA title, most recently Williams’ 2009 Tar Heels. Now that’s the voice of experience.