CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A month ago, North Carolina’s four preseason goals remained in reach. Three games and two losses later, the Tar Heels are clinging to the lone attainable goal on that list: winning their last game.
Larry Fedora detailed his program’s 2016 goals – state championship, ACC Coastal Division title, ACC Championship and winning the last game - at UNC’s media day in early August. The first three targets were also goals during the 11-3 run in 2015, but after losing the final two games of the season in back-to-back seasons, that sour postseason taste prompted the fourth addition.
“That’s one of our goals for this year: win our last game, no matter what it is,” junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky said on Aug. 5. “You’ve got to start strong and finish strong.”
UNC neither started strong nor finished strong this season, dropping its season opener to Georgia before losing to rivals Duke and N.C. State in its final two FBS contests. The Bulldogs finished 7-5 (4-4 SEC) while the Blue Devils and Wolfpack combined to win four ACC games.
The Tar Heels were in contention for the Coastal Division title and an Orange Bowl bid entering the Duke game on Nov. 10 before falling into the Tier 1 bowl selection pool and being shipped out to El Paso for a Sun Bowl matchup with No. 16 Stanford on Dec. 30.
“I don’t think the Sun Bowl is a letdown,” Fedora said during the bowl's teleconference on Sunday night, “but any time you set goals and you don’t reach those goals, I think you probably feel a little disappointed in yourself, and I think that’s how this team feels right now. We didn’t achieve all of the things that we wanted to.
“That being said, the last goal that we had in place was to win our last game. So we do have that opportunity and I think this group of seniors wants to make sure they go out on the right note.”
That’s a stark difference from Stanford’s vantage point after the Cardinal opened the season 4-3 before reeling off five straight wins to close the season.
“For us, right now, being able to put ourselves in position to win enough games to get to a bowl game from where we were at the midpoint of the season, we’re just excited to have this opportunity,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said.
UNC finished its season at 8-4 (5-3 ACC), which marks the third time in five years under Fedora the program has won at least eight games. That’s the same number of eight-win seasons the Tar Heels had during the 11 years prior to Fedora’s arrival.
Even so, the Tar Heels’ stumbles in rivalry games in which they were heavy favorites yielded emotions of anger and disappointment in opportunities lost.
“We just weren’t able to overcome all of the adversity that we created for ourselves,” Fedora said. “There were a few games down the stretch we didn’t play up to our capabilities. We didn’t make the ordinary plays that we needed to make. It wasn’t anything that we had to do out of the ordinary. We just needed to make the ordinary plays, and we didn’t do that for whatever reason.”
There is still plenty to play for beyond the team’s final goal. A victory would give UNC 20 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97 (21) and for only the fourth time in school history. It also marks the final game for 16 seniors that weathered a constant NCAA storm throughout their careers.
“Our guys are really excited to get back out on the football field again and compete together one last time because this will be the last time they will ever all be together in this setting,” Fedora said.
That’s motivation enough.