About one year earlier Larry Fedora and two of his players had walked into the kind of room they did on Thursday and answered similar questions about what they’d learned – the hard lessons from the season before.
Except then, months after the conclusion of a forgettable 6-7 season, the Tar Heels had spoken about how failure had been a good teacher – about how team division eventually fostered unity. And now? Now UNC approaches a season like few teams in school history have.
“We’re not that far away, all right?” Fedora, preparing for his fifth season as UNC’s head coach, said on Thursday at the ACC’s annual preseason football kickoff, which is something of an unofficial start to the season. “And our kids know that.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between then and now. Last summer, after that 2014 6-7 finish, the Tar Heels hoped they could develop into the kind of team Fedora and his coaching staff envision. They hoped they could be good, or better. Now they know they can.
UNC won 11 games a season ago for the first time since 1997. The Tar Heels tied the school record for victories in a season, and won double-digit games for the eighth time in school history.
That kind of success has often eluded UNC. And that kind of sustained success, over multiple seasons, has been rarer.
The Tar Heels enter the 2016 season hoping to do what has been done twice in their long football history: follow one double-digit win season with another. UNC last did it in 1996 and 1997, when it won 10 games, and then 11, during Mack Brown’s final two seasons as head coach.
The only other time the Tar Heels won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons came more than three decades ago, when they won 11 games during the 1980 season and 10 in 1981. UNC has a chance to make some uncommon history, then, this season.
Fedora and his players also believe they have the components to make it happen. The Tar Heels return all but one regular starter from a record-setting offense that averaged more points (40.7 per game) and yards (486.9) than any in school history.
Defensively, UNC will miss Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, two linebackers who were among the team’s leading tacklers, and among its most reliable leaders. Even so, most everyone else is back from a defense that improved significantly in Gene Chizik’s first season as coordinator.
The defense, in some ways, mirrors the evolution of Fedora’s overall program. A year ago the Tar Heels’ defense hoped to be better. Now, after a full season under Chizik, it knows what it can be.
“You can’t stay the same and be as good as you were,” said Des Lawrence, a senior cornerback who enters the season as an All-American candidate. “We’re just trying to reach new heights.”
It’s a lofty goal, given what the Tar Heels accomplished a year ago during a breakout season. After beginning the 2015 season with a loss against South Carolina, UNC won 11 consecutive games and ascended into the national discussion surrounding the College Football Playoff.
A victory against Clemson in the ACC Championship game would have given the Tar Heels an outside shot of making the playoff. Instead, UNC ended the season with a 45-37 loss against Clemson and a 49-38 defeat against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Those defeats did little to dampen the optimism surrounding the program since the end of last season, when players were still reeling from what they’d experienced the previous fall. In a span of a year, UNC has gone from ACC also-ran to perhaps the favorite to win the Coastal Division – again.
“It’s definitely been a different offseason from last year, going 6-7, 11-3,” Ryan Switzer, the senior receiver, said. “There’s a big discrepancy there. We tried not to focus too much on being teams’ go-to game. We know our schedule is hectic enough as it is.
“We play seven teams I believe with new head coaches. We open up with an SEC team (Georgia). We understand that although we may be the number one team on some team’s schedule, we’ve got 12 number one teams we’ve got to see this year in order to get anywhere close to where we were last year.”
Fedora, for one, doesn’t believe the Tar Heels are too far off. A reporter asked him on Thursday about the perceived gap that separates Florida State and Clemson from the rest of the conference.
Fedora spoke of his team’s close loss against Clemson a season ago in the ACC Championship game, where UNC was a controversial onside kick away from having possession with a chance to tie in the final moments. The margin between winning and losing wasn’t all that wide.
“I’m going to say that gap is closing,” Fedora said.