UNC tries to ignore Atlanta futility approaching trip to Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech's Jabari Hunt-Days (32) and Jemea Thomas (14) stop UNC's Romar Morris (21) in 2013 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. UNC hasn’t beaten the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta since 1997.
Georgia Tech's Jabari Hunt-Days (32) and Jemea Thomas (14) stop UNC's Romar Morris (21) in 2013 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. UNC hasn’t beaten the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta since 1997. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Larry Fedora said he wouldn’t talk about it. Jeff Schoettmer said it has already been brought up in meetings. Players say they won’t think about it. Yet in some ways it’s impossible to ignore: It has been a while, a long while, since North Carolina won at Georgia Tech.

The Tar Heels go on the road this weekend to Atlanta, where they’ll be seeking their first victory at Georgia Tech since 1997, back when Mack Brown was the head coach and when UNC was in the midst, perhaps, of its best season in school history.

Who would have thought then that UNC, riding as high as it ever had in football, would lose its next eight consecutive games at Bobby Dodd Stadium? That’s how these things go, though. One loss turns into two, then three. And then you realize 17 seasons have gone by without a road victory against a conference rival.

Even the oldest players on UNC’s roster don’t have recollection of the last time the Tar Heels won in Atlanta. Schoettmer, the fifth-year senior linebacker, was 4-years-old, living with his family in Dallas. Landon Turner, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman, was also 4-years-old. He couldn’t remember for sure on Monday where he was living in 1997.

“I don’t remember much,” he said.

But then he said this: “I’ve never cared, honestly, about those things.”

Which is the proper thing to say – the right thing to say – for a player on a team mired in this kind of road misery against one single opponent.

“There’s a lot of droughts in a lot of different things,” Turner said. “And it’s not necessarily some mystic curse that’s been put over the football program that you can’t win in Atlanta.”

That’s probably true. UNC owes its problems in Atlanta not to curses or voodoo hexes or bad juju but instead to simple old-fashioned football futility. The eight consecutive losses coincide with some rough stretches in UNC’s football history – the Carl Torbush years, the John Bunting years, the Butch Davis era and all that came with it – and some successful seasons at Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson.

Even so, the run is difficult to explain – especially when you consider that, more often than not, the Tar Heels had been in decent enough position to win. They lost by eight points at Georgia Tech in 2013, by seven in 2011, by two in 2007 and by six in 2005. So close. And yet the streak grew.

UNC coach Larry Fedora has only been here for one of those Atlanta losses – the one in 2013 – and so he’s unfamiliar with the long-term anguish associated with trips to Georgia Tech. Asked on Monday what went through his mind when he thought of the streak he said, “It’s been a long time, I guess, would be the first thing.”

“But really, it’s not something we talk about as a team,” Fedora said. “It won’t be something that I address with them, because the 2015 team hasn’t ever lost in Atlanta.”

About 10 minutes later Schoettmer was in another room, pondering the same thought about the streak.

“We talked about that yesterday,” he said on Monday. “I think coach mentioned that to us. So it’s been a while and we want to do something special.”

It would be special, indeed. Not only would a victory at Georgia Tech break UNC’s second-longest road losing streak in ACC history – the Tar Heels lost 14 consecutive games at Virginia between 1983 and 2008 – but it would also be the second time since 2001 that UNC won its conference opener.

Turner said he’s not “too hung up on” UNC’s futility in Atlanta and he noted, accurately, that the streak “isn’t going to be a big factor” when the teams play Saturday. No, the game will be decided, instead, on such things as the play of UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, and how effective UNC’s defense is against the Georgia Tech triple-option.

Still, the streak is one game longer and two years older than it was the last time UNC traveled to Atlanta. Every year, and with every loss, the memories of the Tar Heels’ most recent victory there continue to grow more distant.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer