North Carolina has four more games left to play but, with its most important goals already unreachable, little left to play for. The Tar Heels long ago dropped out of the race to win the ACC’s Coastal Division. There will be no winning record, no postseason.
Another defeat on Saturday, against Miami at Kenan Stadium, would represent UNC’s 11th consecutive defeat against an opponent from a major conference. Nearly a year has passed since the Tar Heels won such a game, and an entire season is in danger of passing without such a victory.
This has been a season of losses both on the field, where defeats are accumulating at a rate UNC hasn’t experienced in more than a decade, and on the depth chart, which has been decimated by injury after injury. The Tar Heels have lost 17 players for the season because of injury.
Another, freshman running back Michael Carter, is hurt and will be unavailable to play on Saturday against the Hurricanes. In every other one of Larry Fedora’s first five seasons as UNC’s head coach, the Tar Heels approached this time of year at least with some of their goals intact.
Now the only preseason goal the Tar Heels have left is to win their final game. And even that task, which would require a victory at N.C. State, appears unmanageable given UNC’s current state of affairs amid an injury situation that nearly defies description.
So what now? What does UNC really have left to play for?
“Love of the game,” M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback, said after a 59-7 defeat at Virginia Tech last weekend.
That loss became the worst of Fedora’s tenure at UNC, and the worst the Tar Heels have endured since 2006, when John Bunting coached his final season. Those were miserable, long days for the UNC football program, though the misery then wasn’t necessarily surprising.
It is, somewhat, now – even considering the Tar Heels’ injury woes. Less than two years have passed, after all, since they won all eight of their regular-season conference games and played against Clemson in the ACC championship game.
UNC then appeared to be a program on the rise. Since, it has experienced an accelerated demise.
When the Tar Heels defeated Georgia Tech early last November, they were 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the ACC. They had a chance, still, of a second consecutive Coastal Division championship.
Then they crumbled in the second half of a defeat against Duke, and stumbled in the beginning of what became a disappointing defeat against N.C. State in the regular-season finale. Since beating Georgia Tech last November, UNC has played 12 games, an entire regular season’s worth.
In those 12 games, the Tar Heels are 2-10. The two victories: The Citadel and Old Dominion.
UNC during that span has lost to Duke, twice, and lost five of its six home games, including all five of its games at Kenan Stadium this year. The Tar Heels are hosting Homecoming this weekend and, near the height of autumnal beauty in Chapel Hill, Kenan Stadium could be home to more misery.
The season has taken such a dismal turn that Fedora has been left to search for positives one play at a time. Upon reviewing the film of the 52-point defeat last weekend at Virginia Tech, for instance, he appreciated that Dazz Newsome, a freshman receiver, understood his blocking assignment on one particular play.
In that moment, Fedora saw individual growth. The scoreboard told a far different story.
“I can tell you offensively, we didn’t get better as an offense,” Fedora said. “But there were guys within the offense that did some nice things in some situations that they had made a mistake before doing it and got it corrected and didn’t make the same mistake.
“You’ve got to look for the little things, the small silver linings in the details.”
Overall, the Tar Heels are running out of time to salvage much of anything in a lost season. A season-ending victory at N.C. State, as improbable as it seems, would be significant. For a team that has lost 10 of its past 12 games, just about any victory would be.
This is new ground for Fedora and his players. The season might not be over in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense the defeat at Virginia Tech put it out of its misery. There are four games remaining, but they bring only an opportunity to play, as Stewart said, for the love of playing.
“I know me, everybody’s probably come from winning (high school) programs,” said Chazz Surratt, the Tar Heels’ second-year freshman quarterback. “We’re not used to losing. So just pride, playing for one another, playing for our brothers. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
Miami at UNC
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill