Luke DeCock

A year later, Tar Heels back in the same spot – DeCock

North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) and his teammates leave the field dejected following their 33-24 loss to Georgia on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) and his teammates leave the field dejected following their 33-24 loss to Georgia on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. rwillett@newsobserver.com

For North Carolina, this was all too familiar, the circumstances and the stakes alike. A nationally televised, neutral-site opener against an SEC opponent. A third-quarter lead. Cruel fate.

A season that began with the same lofty aspirations was immediately derailed in similar fashion.

Saturday’s 33-24 loss to Georgia was eerily similar to the loss to South Carolina in Charlotte that opened last season, and it may have the exact same effect on the Tar Heels’ season. It won’t derail their chances of getting back to the ACC title game, but there’s certainly work to be done to get there.

The Tar Heels held a 10-point third-quarter lead after a pair of T.J. Logan touchdowns – one on a kickoff return to open the second half, the other on a 21-yard run that ended with a dive to the pylon – and their fans were chanting “ACC! ACC!” before Georgia scored 19 unanswered points, the most controversial coming on a safety after North Carolina’s Larry Fedora was tagged with the rare unsportsmanlike-conduct call on a coach, backing the Tar Heels up on their goal line.

“I was questioning the call and the guy didn’t like what I said and he threw the flag on me,” Fedora said. “That’s nobody’s fault but mine. It’s my fault. First time that’s ever happened in my life. Pretty disappointing. Then we’re backed up on the 2- or 3-yard line and they get the safety. That’s on me. That’s all on me.”

Fedora didn’t make Mitch Trubisky throw the ball to Elijah Hood in the end zone or Hood catch it, but the penalty didn’t help. Nor did North Carolina’s more conventional forms of indiscipline, which accounted for 12 other penalties as the Tar Heels lost their cool in the face of a few questionable calls. Nor did Trubisky struggling in his debut as a starter or the defense’s inability to hold Georgia running back Nick Chubb under 200 yards, now officially a chronic weakness.

“We had the momentum for a good bit of the game,” Hood said. “Obviously we started losing that going into the fourth and we let that slip away from us.”

All of it added to the litany of bad things that has happened to Triangle teams in the Georgia Dome in recent years. They will not miss it when it comes down soon.

Cordarelle Patterson ran roughshod over N.C. State as Tennessee put Tom O’Brien’s tenure on life support while David Amerson did his best to ruin his own draft stock. Duke thought it had that long-awaited bowl win in the bag before Johnny Manziel ended his college career with a Peach Bowl comeback, the final moment he was still Johnny Football.

It has only been six years since North Carolina kicked off that run when it opened the 2010 season in the Georgia Dome against LSU, a complete circus under this biggest of tops, with John Blake allowed to coach mere days before he was declared persona non grata and the suspended Marvin Austin sat in the stands and the otherwise reliable connection of T.J. Yates and Zach Pianalto failed to connect.

So much has changed since then, although not everything. The scandal that hung over the Tar Heels then – and cost that talented 2010 team not only a win against Louisiana State but whatever chance it had at a breakthrough season – still hangs over the Tar Heels in 2016 in mutated, metastasized form, albeit within sight of the finish line, presumably.

Under new management, the Tar Heels a year ago did what those predecessors could not, putting together the first double-digit season since 1997 on their way to the ACC championship game. A year later, there was still history to be made, most notably by reversing a string of disappointing losses against marquee teams on a national stage that dates back to when these players were in preschool.

But North Carolina could not surmount the opening hex that goes beyond a thumping at Oklahoma in 2001 and includes not only the LSU loss but losses at South Carolina in 2013 and last year. Those nationally televised opening losses – North Carolina hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent to open the season since 1993 – go hand-in-hand with a 2-6 record in North Carolina’s past eight bowl games.

Not even last year’s Coastal Division champions could reverse that trend of struggles on big stages, and while the loss to South Carolina didn’t keep them from playing for an ACC title, it had a negative impact on their playoff prospects.

A year later, after watching a potentially program-changing win over Georgia slip away, the Tar Heels are back in the same spot.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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