They called last week “history week” around North Carolina but, really, this is the Saturday the Tar Heels can make history – the day they can win the ACC’s Coastal Division and clinch their first appearance in the ACC championship game.
Mack Hollins, UNC’s junior wide receiver, early last week started the “history week” movement, if it can be called such a thing, when he repeated the phrase everywhere he went – in team practices and meetings, while walking around campus. This week Hollins had a new phrase.
“Coastal week,” he has called it, and fittingly enough given the stakes for the Tar Heels.
They will win the Coastal Division on Saturday either with a victory at Virginia Tech in coach Frank Beamer’s final home game at Lane Stadium or if Pittsburgh loses at home against Louisville. If one of those things happens, then one of UNC’s primary preseason goals will become a reality.
That UNC is here, on the cusp of winning the division and playing for an ACC championship, is the realization of what Larry Fedora envisioned when he accepted UNC’s head coaching position a little more than four years ago. It’s what he thought would happen even sooner.
In July 2014, at the ACC’s annual football media day event, Fedora sat at a table with reporters and said “it’s time.” The implication was clear: it was time for UNC to take the next step, time for it to win the division and play in the ACC Championship game.
As it turned out, it was not the Tar Heels’ time a season ago. They finished 6-7 amid one of the worst defensive seasons in school history. It ended with an ugly 40-21 loss against Rutgers in a forgettable bowl game and, afterward, players spoke of their lack of unity, effort and belief in one another.
Looking back, Fedora earlier this week didn’t regret saying what he said before last season.
“No, I really thought it was (possible),” he said. “... It just didn’t work that way. But I really thought that we had the plan in place and the people in place to be able to do it last year, and we just didn’t do it.
“I did a poor job.”
Since the end of last season, though, nearly everything Fedora has done has worked. He hosted a team meeting early last January and his invited players to share their frustrations with the coaching staff and with the program.
It was so beneficial that some players still talk about that meeting and cite it as a turning point. Jeff Schoettmer, the senior middle linebacker, brought it up again after UNC’s 59-21 victory against Miami last weekend. Schoettmer said he knows he talks about it a lot.
But, he said, “I can’t stress enough how important that meeting was.”
Fedora’s next big decision was to hire Gene Chizik to fix the Tar Heels’ defense. That one has worked out well. UNC has gone from one of the worst defenses in the country to the most improved defense in the country.
Even Fedora’s choice in books has worked. Each preseason he gives his senior class a reading assignment, and then the seniors present the book’s lessons to the rest of the team. This preseason the book was “The Positive Dog,” and the lessons within helped UNC stay positive even after the way the season began.
Since the 17-13 season-opening defeat against South Carolina the Tar Heels haven’t lost. The nine-game winning streak is UNC’s longest in a single-season in more than 100 years. The past two weeks, UNC has scored 125 points – more than it had ever scored in consecutive games.
Along the way, the Tar Heels have become something of a dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff. They’re up to No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings and for the first time in a long time UNC football is being discussed nationally in a positive way.
And now there’s a chance to make real history with a victory at Virginia Tech. It’s bound to be an emotional, intense environment at Lane Stadium, where they’ll be saying goodbye to Beamer, who’s in his 29th and final season at Virginia Tech.
“We’re not worried about that,” Schoettmer said of all that will surround Beamer’s final home game. “That’s all on Virginia Tech’s side and what they’re worried about. We’re just worried about winning this game and getting one step closer to our goals.”
Those goals, from the start, have remained the same: win the Coastal Division and win the mythical state championship. UNC can take care of one on Saturday and the other next Saturday with a victory at N.C. State.
Fedora dismissed the thought of thinking bigger. Or, at least, the thought of changing the team’s goals to include an ACC championship. But it would be time to start thinking of that possibility if the Tar Heels win on Saturday.
The Hokies will be playing to send Beamer off with a victory in his final home game. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have been inspired by the thought that outsiders continue to overlook them.
Marquise Williams, the UNC fifth-year senior quarterback, has talked for weeks about a perceived lack of respect. He talked about it before the Tar Heels were ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll and still, with UNC now ranked No. 12, Williams still uses the thought as motivation.
“We’re gong to be excited too because we still have people that think we’re irrelevant,” Williams said. “People think we shouldn’t be where we are today. That’s fine.”
The no-one-respects-us angle has been working for UNC. Then again, just about everything has been working lately for the Tar Heels.
They’re scoring points at a record pace. They’ve gone three consecutive games without a turnover. The defense has played well enough the past two weeks to allow UNC to build insurmountable leads.
And now comes the chance to make more history – an opportunity to win the Coastal and spoil the biggest party of the fall in the Virginia mountains, the one they’re throwing for Beamer on Saturday in Blacksburg.
Fedora said he anticipates a “tremendous amount of emotion” at Lane Stadium. Williams said he knows the Hokies will be “amped up.”
It’s sure to be a festive, loud atmosphere from the start, but the Tar Heels have in mind their own plans to celebrate history.