Last year was supposed to be the breakout year for North Carolina. “It's time,” Larry Fedora said. By the end of the season, the Tar Heels had the worst defense in school history and a locker room rife with dissension and fractured chemistry.
This year, though, was really supposed to be the breakout year for North Carolina. The defense was retooled under new coordinator Gene Chizik. The offensive line, a weakness last season, returned intact and a year older, protecting a plethora of talented skill players led by quarterback Marquise Williams.
Year 4 of the Fedora regime began Thursday with so many of the same issues as the first three years, only with fewer excuses.
After one game, we don't know what these Tar Heels are yet. We do know, however, what they aren't: This is not the kind of team that's going to explore new territory for North Carolina football. It may still win an ACC championship, or the Coastal Division, but if Thursday is any indication, eight wins is once again the ceiling.
South Carolina looked like a middle-of-the-pack Coastal Division team Thursday. And the Tar Heels still contrived to lose the game, 17-13.
What can you say about an offense that piles up 440 yards and 20 first downs but only 13 points, thanks to three interceptions in the red zone by a fifth-year quarterback?
What can you say about a coaching staff that leaves an unstoppable running back on the sideline inside the 10-yard line with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter?
What can you say about a defense that gives up only 17 points – a performance that was a full order of magnitude better than any the Tar Heels produced a year ago – and it still isn't enough to win?
You can say it's another would-be breakthrough season, broken already.
So much more of the same: The game-winning touchdown was scored on a big play, a 48-yard run against a worn-down defense. Players who should be showing improvement at this point in their careers appear to have regressed, Williams in particular. And Fedora will spend the rest of the season trying to explain why Elijah Hood didn't get the ball with the game on the line. His convoluted first attempt Thursday night certainly didn't make any headway.
It was merely one of several questionable decisions from the North Carolina coaching staff.
On the game's most pivotal play, Williams said the Tar Heels ran the same play they ran in the first quarter when Williams threw the ball straight to South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore. And once again, Williams threw the ball straight to Moore, standing in almost exactly the same spot.
Same play. Same result. Game over.
Williams willingly accepted blame, but really, how much of it should fall on him for that particular play?
Fedora has described last season's offense as “average,” but it was largely overshadowed by an inept defense, protecting first-year offensive coordinator Seth Littrell from the same acute criticism ex-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning received.
The defense looked good Thursday, but there's no excuse for a team with the amount of offensive skill talent as North Carolina to give up 17 points and lose. None at all. Especially to a mediocre SEC team that had a fraction of the raw talent it had when the Tar Heels were beaten up in Columbia two years ago.
That season ended 7-6. Last season ended 6-7. The Tar Heels had a chance to show against South Carolina they were capable of better things. All they showed Thursday was more of the same.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947