North Carolina began the season with the hope that the momentum it created at the end of last year – a season-ending victory in the Belk Bowl – would carry over and lead to a fast start to a season fueled by expectations.
It didn’t happen that way, but now the Tar Heels are hoping for something similar to what they were a season ago – that a victory in their final game might help atone for an uneven, largely disappointing regular season.
There was no Coastal Division championship for UNC this season. No trip to a marquee bowl in an exotic location. With a victory Friday against Rutgers in Detroit in the Quick Lane Bowl, though, the Tar Heels would close the season on a positive note.
“It would carry on to the offseason,” junior quarterback Marquise Williams said recently. “With high hopes and guys feeling confident about the upcoming season and things like that. Just like last year when we went down to the Belk Bowl and won.
“A lot of guys had a lot of confidence going into this season.”
Williams quickly added that all of that confidence didn’t exactly translate into success the way the Tar Heels had hoped. They won their first two games, against Liberty and San Diego State, before losing their next four.
While it’s difficult to predict what kind of effect a bowl victory might have on future success – or if it has any effect at all – there are at least a few certainties for the Tar Heels: a win against Rutgers would give them their seventh consecutive wining season, vacated victories in 2008 and 2009 notwithstanding.
It also would help ease the pain of a difficult-to-stomach 35-7 loss against N.C. State in the regular-season finale. That loss, which came a little more than a week after the Tar Heels played their finest game of the season in a victory at Duke, represented a breakdown in all aspects – one that has UNC seeking atonement.
“We have an opportunity to end the season on the right note, and get some momentum going into the offseason,” sophomore receiver Ryan Switzer said. “And we’re thankful for that. And we’ve got a lot of stuff to work on from now and to the bowl game, and from the bowl game to next season.
“A lot of stuff is not football related. So it starts now.”
The Tar Heels, at least, have some experience playing amid these kinds of circumstances. They began last season with high hopes, too, before a five-game losing streak derailed it.
A turnaround in the second half of the season – sound familiar? – allowed UNC to finish 6-6 and it earned a spot in Charlotte, where it played one of its best games in a victory against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. That victory a year ago, too, came after a loss against a rival.
UNC ended the regular season with a loss against N.C. State this year. Last year, it was Duke.
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora has found similarities in the circumstances.
“There are some things that we can take away from that,” Fedora said. “Does that mean (a victory is) going to automatically happen? No. But we hope some things we learned (last year) and the things we learned in the loss (against N.C. State) we can carry forward and be a better football team on the 26th.”
Fedora spent most of the season waiting for the Tar Heels to put together a complete game – waiting for the kind of performance they provided in the victory at Duke, a win that came in UNC’s second-to-last game. Before that win, UNC often played well offensively but not defensively. Once, in a loss against Virginia Tech, its defense played well enough to win, but the offense struggled.
Consistency proved elusive again, though, even after the Tar Heels’ most complete victory. They followed the win at Duke with the confounding loss against N.C. State.
After UNC allowed 388 yards rushing against the Wolfpack – the most it has allowed during Fedora’s three seasons as coach – Fedora decided to part ways with Vic Koenning, the assistant coach who had been most responsible for the defense.
“I was just looking for some consistency, to start playing at a higher level and be more consistent doing it instead of in spurts in games,” Fedora said of the defense. “And we just never really achieved that.”
Dan Disch, the assistant who was the second in command on the defensive coaching staff, has led the defense during preparation for the bowl. Disch will call the defensive plays Friday, though UNC will use the same 4-2-5 scheme it has the past three years.
Fedora, who during the past three seasons has espoused the benefits of the 4-2-5, recently said he’d be willing to hire a new defensive coordinator who prefers to use a more traditional 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. That hire will come eventually, likely sooner rather than later.
For now, though, the Tar Heels’ focus has been on ending a disappointing season with a positive – and then hoping that a victory really does carry over this time.