North Carolina’s familiar tune echoes through Charlotte on opening night

Before every season, college football fans know the drill:

Notre Dame, due to its brand name and immense cultural reach in the United States, generally gets rated highly in the polls and is accompanied by quite a lot of national buzz. No team is more a friend of fanfare — whether deserved or not — than the Irish.

USC, if it seems to have enough talent, gets ample publicity as well. The Trojans have that magnetic presence in college football. Oklahoma has received more second-place picks from pundits than it probably deserves (while TCU deserves fewer third-place votes than it has received). Preseason polls don’t actually have anything to do with how good a team is, but in terms of measuring preseason hype — especially the unwarranted kind — Notre Dame, USC, and Oklahoma form a fairly representative trio. One could add a few more high-end names to the mix.

Then there’s North Carolina.

The Tar Heels are not exactly starving for resources at one of America’s most acclaimed and prestigious state universities. It is also true that in most seasons, there are at least one or two players on a North Carolina roster who ooze NFL talent in copious amounts. The Tar Heels do encounter a few games each year when they roar into form and display the full measure of their talents. It looks very impressive, and onlookers are so dazzled by the show that they seem to forget all the times a UNC group stumbles and fumbles and fails to put the pieces together.

“Watch out for North Carolina!” It’s a common refrain before a lot of college football seasons, despite a brand name best reserved for basketball and women’s soccer. In some ways it’s understandable — showcasing an imposing level of offensive potency on a few occasions can leave a lasting impression. Yet, given how little UNC has achieved in football over the past third of a century — with the exception of Mack Brown’s tenure in the mid-1990s, and perhaps one or two other years — it’s surprising that the Tar Heels continue to seduce some prognosticators and lure them into thinking that this will be the year in Chapel Hill.

That sense of surprise at those who would think highly of a Larry Fedora-coached team was affirmed on the opening night of the 2015 season.


South Carolina played a decent — though hardly special — defensive game in Charlotte. The Gamecocks’ best attribute, in many ways, was that when they allowed a long run, they were able to stop said run before the 15-yard line. North Carolina had to navigate the red zone time after time, and South Carolina was continuously able to stonewall the Heels, twice intercepting erratic quarterback Marquise Williams in the end zone, the second time coming with under four minutes left in regulation to preserve a 17-13 lead. South Carolina’s front four improved in the second half, generating more of a pass rush, but it was hardly good enough to beat the top teams in the SEC.

South Carolina’s corners were average on Thursday. They ceded a lot of ground to North Carolina’s receivers. North Carolina didn’t always run wild, but it did gain 440 yards, and moreover, it did so in a balanced manner — 232 passing yards and 208 rushing yards.

North Carolina did get stuffed in the final 20 minutes, but for the first 40 on Thursday, the Tar Heels generally carried the run of play. They offered more formations and lines of attack than the Gamecocks’ offense did. They were more threatening, more potent, in what they attempted to do. Their quarterback — having a decided advantage in terms of experience — unsurprisingly showed much more command of the offense. Williams was a far more active player for North Carolina than a largely overwhelmed Connor Mitch proved to be for South Carolina.

Yet, Williams was the player who threw two end-zone interceptions. North Carolina was the team which dropped a pick-six early in the contest. North Carolina and Fedora burned a timeout inside the final four minutes, costing themselves a chance to get the ball back after Williams’ second end-zone pick.

The Tar Heels watched the quarterback on the opposing team (Mitch) complete just 9 of 22 passes while also sabotaging a South Carolina drive with a taunting penalty, of all things.

Yet, the team with the 9-of-22 signal caller in the first start of his collegiate career still won. North Carolina genuinely found a way to lose.

It’s been the way the Tar Heels have rolled throughout the Fedora era.

This is a season in which North Carolina needed to shatter prevailing and longstanding perceptions about a program which was recently tainted by scandal and has lacked good news to share with its campus community for quite some time. You hear the words “sleeping giant” associated with UNC all the time, but wide-awake prognosticators — not most, but always some — keep thinking that an awakening will occur.

UNC needed to emerge from its slumber on Thursday night, but it was not able to become more wakeful, more alert, in red-zone and late-game situations which demanded more attention to detail. The more these losses accumulate, the more uncomfortable Fedora’s seat will become.

Entrenched patterns have to be broken sooner rather than later — the hour grows late, early in the season, for North Carolina football.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |