CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There’s a first time for everything. For North Carolina, Saturday’s ACC opener against Pittsburgh marks its first opportunity to take the field as reigning Coastal Division champions and defend its 2015 title.
The Tar Heels (2-1), however, are not looking to build on last season’s accolades. One season doesn’t make a program, and the year-to-year grind up the mountain of respectability starts once again this weekend.
“We’re entering Coastal Division play now and all of our goals are in play for the rest of the season,” head coach Larry Fedora said on Monday. “This is a big game because it’s the next game, but it’s a big game against a Divisional opponent.”
A year after dropping its season opener before reeling off a school-record 11 straight wins, including an 8-0 mark in ACC play, UNC is following a similar progression through the first three games of 2016 with a loss to a SEC opponent (Georgia) in the opening followed by blowout victories over Illinois and a FCS opponent (James Madison).
“We have new goals compared to last year,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. “We know what we did last year, but we realize this 2016 team is not the 2015 team. We want it to go the same way as last year, but it’s up to us to make it happen.”
UNC’s 2016 goals, in order: win the state championship, win the Coastal Division, win the ACC Championship and win the last game.
Despite the positive momentum and historic relevance of last season’s run, UNC’s coaching staff is not allowing those vibes to filter into this season’s conversations. No talk of building on a season that came up short of an ACC Championship or a 12th win, and no mention of using those shortcomings as motivation for a step forward in 2016.
“We established new goals this year on what we wanted to do,” Fedora said. “Yesterday, in the team meeting, I was talking to them about our goals for this season and I will continue to talk about them each and every week, so that they don’t lose sight or focus on their goals because it’s so easy to start looking at everything else that’s out there. There’s so much out there.
“If we can continue to stay focused on our goals and just play one game at a time, then we’ll see what happens.”
Saturday looms large for a couple of reasons. First, Pittsburgh finished second in the Coastal Division last season with a 6-2 record and was picked third in the preseason media poll in July. UNC is 3-0 against the Panthers in ACC play.
Second, the ACC opener has served as a pitfall for UNC for the better part of two decades. The Tar Heels rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Georgia Tech last October to avoid their 14th loss in 15 ACC openers.
UNC is looking to win back-to-back ACC openers for the first time since the 1996-97 seasons.
One byproduct of 2015’s run that UNC cannot discount: an ability to believe. It took a series of wins in ACC play last season for the Tar Heels to believe they could win the Coastal, according to safety Donnie Miles.
“I think we’re still figuring out who we are,” Miles said. “This isn’t the team from last year. I think getting this win this week would be a big step towards what we want to accomplish.”