CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 8 North Carolina travels to Charlotte this weekend to play a foe from South Carolina in Bank of America Stadium on national television.
You may have heard this story before. The difference, however, is that while No. 1 Clemson is superior to South Carolina, the same can be said for the current UNC and its September version.
“It’s a totally different team, really,” head coach Larry Fedora said on Monday.
UNC lost its season opener to South Carolina, 17-13, on Sept. 3. The loss was inexplicable, and nearly three months later, the wound may sting even more than in the immediate aftermath due to College Football Playoff implications.
Fedora offered a simple enough explanation for the loss: a lack of identity.
“Going into that game, it was, ‘What are we going to be?’” Fedora said. “’Who are we? Yes, we’ve got confidence coming out of camp, but boy, when the lights get turned on and we’ve got to play, what are we going to be like?’”
The team that has played in the 12 weeks since then, though, is one that is fully aware of what its job is, and what each individual part is capable of.
“They know exactly who they are, and not only do they know who they are, but they know exactly who the guy is next to them, in front of them, behind them, in every scenario,” Fedora said. “And they know that they can count on each other.”
Fedora used Saturday’s win at N.C. State as an example of just how well his players recognize not only their roles, but that of their teammates.
“In that game the other day, you’d never notice this, but there were multiple backups that had to go in and play on special teams units, for various reasons,” Fedora said. “In grading guys out on the film, every single one of those guys did an exceptional job.”
That sounds teachable, but according to the head coach, it comes from something different.
“Not because they’re getting the reps in practice, but they are mentally preparing themselves, because they don’t want to let each other down,” Fedora said. “Some guys played spots that they hadn’t practiced, but we needed them to go.
“They went in, ‘I’ve got it, I know exactly what he does, I’ve got it.’ And they went in, and did it.”
The Tar Heels know who they are now, and have built an 11-game winning streak on that knowledge.
“Our team is excited about going back to Charlotte and playing in Bank of America Stadium, representing the Coastal Division and trying to win an ACC Championship.”
What does it mean to you to see the journey of these seniors on this team given everything they’ve overcome (scheme changes, investigations, etc.)?
“It’s pretty special. There’s five of them that were fifth-year seniors, and then the other seniors, I mean, for those guys to have bought into the vision that we were selling, and to wholeheartedly give everything they have to try to make that happen to reach their dreams and goals, it’s an incredible feeling, to see that happen for those kids. And then, on the other side, it makes me feel confident that no matter what’s thrown at them when they leave this university with their degree, that they’re going to be successful. They’re going to be able to fall back on the lessons that they’ve learned, overcoming all of this adversity.”
Have there been moments over the past where you’ve asked yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?”
“Yeah, definitely. There were a lot of things that were unexpected, and a lot of things that were tougher than I thought. I’d be lying if I told you that it was any other way. But, at the same time, even though it may be frustrating, the plan was set in place, and we’re going to work the plan every day. That meant motivating people, and keeping people positive about what was going on in the program, and that our future is very bright.”
What were some of those moments?
“The ongoing investigation, or the multiple investigations, or the regurgitation of the same information over and over and over just to keep bringing it up to create a negative atmosphere for as long as somebody could create it. That was difficult.”
Have you had a chance to appreciate the climb this program has made under you?
“When it’s all over with, maybe I can sit back, smoke a cigar, and think back on it, but for right now, we’re fixing to play the number one team in the country. We don’t have time to kick our shoes off and throw our feet up. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
What was the most difficult change to recognize from your initial vision for this program?
“I would say that for us that we would constantly be prepared to defend ourselves in recruiting. Long before you could ever sell what you have to offer, you would have to defend. And that was something that was constant throughout the process, and that was surprising.”
What was your message on Sunday morning to the team after achieving both of your season goals?
“I mentioned it in the locker room that we’ve hit these goals, on Sunday, we’ve got to establish new goals. There’s not a guy in there that was laying back and saying ‘Oh man, we’ve accomplished our goals, we’re good.’ It was like ‘No, we’ve got work to do.’ And that’s why in establishing the new goals, I’m confident in these guys, because I know how they’re going come to work tomorrow, I know how they’re going come to work on Wednesday, I know how they’re going come to work on Thursday. Their consistency throughout this whole year has made this process so much fun for this coaching staff. It’s not coming up from pregame and going ‘Alright, how’d they look? How were their eyes like? Do you think they’re going to be okay? How are they going play?’ And you laugh, but there’s been many times in my life that that’s what you do. And you have no idea, and you say ‘Oh man, they looked really good in pregame,’ and they go out there and lay an egg. Or, ‘I don’t know if they’re ready,’ and they go out there and crush somebody. With this group, it’s just the same way all the time, and that’s nice.”
Has anybody from the 1980 team communicated with you since clinching the Coastal?
“I have met guys along the way this year that were part of that team, and not by any means a lot of them, but there have been guys that said ‘Yeah, I was on that team,’ you know, and it’s pretty cool to talk to somebody that was in that situation. I’ve never turned down the opportunity for any of our former players to come and talk to our guys. The last one to do that this year was Quincy Monk before the Wake Forest game. He had some great things to say, and it was really good for our football team.”
Did Saturday’s game against N.C. State meet your defensive standard?
“Let me go ahead and set the record straight there, because some of that you can put on me. There were points in the game where I said ‘Gene (Chizik), they’ve got to do this, this and this to beat us. Make them work for every yard they get. Don’t give them anything big.’ That ties his hands a little bit. That’s less blitzing, less this, puts us in man coverage fewer times, so that if something bad does happen—Because they’ve got to score three times. And with where we were in the game, I felt comfortable that if we didn’t turn the ball over, we would be okay. It was more about winning the football game than worrying about where our stats were on defense or what our stats were on offense, too. The drive that went 97 yards? That’s not our standard, no. But after that, a lot of that stuff is on me. I think that they have done a better job since that Duke game of when we get in that situation (holding a large lead), they’re playing better. But that’s something that you’ve still got to work on. When you’re up like that, human nature is to not be as intense, and not be as focused, and we’ve got to do that, we’ve got to do a better job of that.”