CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marquise Williams, the oldest player on North Carolina’s roster, had just turned five years old the last time the Tar Heels won nine games in a season.
It was 1997, a year in sports that witnessed Tiger Woods become the youngest player to win the Masters at the age of 21 and Mike Tyson bite a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s right ear.
It was also the year of UNC’s last great football season. Mack Brown, in his final season before leaving for Texas, directed the Tar Heels to a 11-1 (7-1 ACC) record and a top-5 national ranking.
The 2015 Tar Heels, as Larry Fedora is fond of saying, haven’t reached those benchmarks yet, although they are quite possibly on their way. UNC has won nine straight games in a single season for the first time since the ACC began in 1953, breaking the record the 1997 squad shared with the 1972 team.
More importantly, the Tar Heels move within one win – or a Pitt loss – from clinching their first ever Coastal Division title and a trip to the ACC Championship Game to face No. 1 Clemson on Dec. 5.
“On Sunday, I promise you the first thing coming out of my mouth will be ‘Coastal Division Champs’ because that’s our goal,” Fedora said during his postgame press conference. “They know that I’m going to say it first in the meeting, and that’s where our focus will be. From that point on, I’ll say it in just about every meeting.”
A week after UNC rolled up 704 yards of total offense, third-most in school history, to offset a poor defensive effort against Duke, the Tar Heels flipped the script against Miami. UNC built a 31-0 halftime lead despite netting 186 total yards, thanks to a trio of touchdown scoring drives of fewer than 50 yards.
The offense found its rhythm in the second half, scoring 28 points behind a rushing attack that churned out 285 yards and six touchdowns. UNC finished with 427 total yards of offense, while holding the Hurricanes to 425 yards, 236 of which came after halftime.
Miami entered Saturday’s matchup as the ACC leader in turnover margin (plus-1.11). The Tar Heels forced three turnovers without committed any, and shut down Miami's ground game (99 yards), thereby making the Hurricanes one-dimensional. Brad Kaaya, the ACC’s top passing quarterback, completed 24 of his 43 passes for 326 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Special teams got involved as well, courtesy of Ryan Switzer’s 78-yard punt return for touchdown, the seventh of his career. The junior return man is one shy of tying the NCAA all-time record for punt returns for touchdown, held by Texas Tech’s Wes Welker (’00-03) and Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins (’01-04).
Even with two regular season games remaining, the 2015 Tar Heels are already creating separation between Brown’s best team in Chapel Hill. The ’97 squad posted an average margin of victory in ACC play of 14.3 points per game, including three wins of 26 points or more. Thus far, the ’15 team has an average margin of victory in ACC play of 19.4 points per game, including three wins of 35 points or more.
It is those types of statistics, as well as these types of games, that has Fedora, his football program and his fan base humming along with growing anticipation for what’s to come.
“This is a damn good football team,” Fedora said.
In addition to breaking the single-season winning streak mark, UNC has finished its home schedule at Kenan Stadium undefeated at 7-0 while moving to 6-0 in the ACC, two thresholds the ’97 squad failed to reach.
The last time UNC started 6-0 in conference play was 1980, which is also the last time the Tar Heels won the ACC Championship.
While wrapping up the Coastal Division title is the focal point, various Tar Heels have expressed frustration in a lack of national respect, as evidenced by UNC’s positioning (No. 23) in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings.
The season-opening loss to South Carolina (currently 3-7) and two FCS opponents on the schedule have tarnished UNC’s resume to date. The only recourse is to play at such a high level as to demand attention.
“We get so little recognition, but that’s what we want,” senior wide receiver Quinshad Davis said. “Don’t recognize us; we’re going to make you recognize us. That’s what we did tonight.”
The ’97 team received its fair share of the national spotlight, but failed to capitalize in its opportunity against the ACC’s best in Florida State. The ’15 team is a step away from having its own opportunity against the nation’s best in Clemson.