CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 20 North Carolina’s 11-3 season last fall is a distant memory. The back-to-back losses to Clemson and Baylor to close the schedule, however, are serving as the motivational fuel for the Tar Heels in 2016 as training camp opened at Navy Fields on Friday.
“We didn’t end the year the way we wanted to, so they’ve had a bad taste in their mouths for 220 days now,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters on a humid August day. “They know they’re about 28 days from the possibility of getting that bad taste out of their mouth. They’ve put in a lot of work.”
After reeling off a school-record 11 straight wins and securing its first-ever Coastal Division crown, UNC fell short in the ACC Championship Game against Clemson before being run over by Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl. It marked the second consecutive season the Tar Heels had lost their final two games.
All of the good will and excitement that built up over the 2015 season was largely gone by the time the team reconvened in January. Such a finish after such a historic run may have diminished the latter, although its inherent silver lining was a team coming back from a double-digit season with plenty to prove.
“It balls up in our gut, and then we just get ready to explode on Sept. 3 because nobody likes that feeling,” junior defensive tackle Naz Jones said. “Especially because they always say we can’t finish the big games. We lost to South Carolina, Clemson and Baylor. So it really doesn’t matter what we do in the other games, we’ve got to finish the big games because we’re definitely going to be in those big games.”
The postseason losses from a season ago even made their way into UNC’s goal chart for 2016.
“That’s one of our goals for this year: win our last game, no matter what it is,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “You’ve got to start strong and finish strong.”
UNC returns 13 starters, plenty of playmakers and a wealth of depth on both sides of the ball. More importantly, the Tar Heels’ preseason two-deep boasts 25 upperclassmen that have experienced both the highs of 2015 and the lows of 2014.
“I think we have more leaders on this team than we had last year,” Fedora said. “Now, whether or not they’re going to be as good of leaders, I don’t know. We haven’t had any adversity yet.”
In addition to the experience in years, staff development of leadership through educational programs and accountability techniques has finally taken hold, according to Fedora. Quality leadership was on display during last season’s run, providing a model for this year’s group to follow.
Such leadership typically results in team chemistry, which allows for cohesiveness when adversity eventually hits. Past experience is a good thing, which is why Fedora is pleased his team is harping on the final two games of 2015.
“You don’t have to worry about them being satisfied with what they did,” Fedora said. “That was just a new bar that was set. This 2016 team, which is the 126th team at the University of North Carolina, they want to set a new bar themselves.”
UNC will get an early opportunity to topple a top-25 opponent as it opens the season against No. 16 Georgia on Sept. 3.