On Saturday, the worst North Carolina football season since 2006 came to an end in Raleigh. UNC entered Carter-Finley Stadium with 20 players out and left with a 33-21 loss and a final record of 3-9.
Chalk it up as a rebuilding year, a total failure or just plain bad luck. Regardless of what the 2017 season is remembered as, just know it wasn’t a lost one. No season is.
Sure, the Tar Heels’ 12 games may have been a constant source of frustration and “what ifs.” Still, they offered plenty of takeaways — some positive and many a source of concern — for the program moving forward.
First, the head coach. In 2017, Larry Fedora’s team finished with the fewest wins, points per game (26) and yards per game (369.6) in his six-year tenure. Until a Nov. 9 win at Pittsburgh, he had lost 11 consecutive games against Power Five teams.
But his seat isn’t hot. It’s clear that both Fedora and North Carolina — which gave him a seven-year contract extension through 2022 in late May — are happy. Last November, he chose not address rumors that LSU had contacted him about replacing Les Miles. Fedora is fifth in UNC history with 43 career victories, and he isn’t going anywhere soon.
On offense, the lack of an established starter at quarterback did the team in. UNC’s best stretch of the season came in its final four games with Nathan Elliott at the helm. After entering for an injured Chazz Surratt on Oct. 28 against then-undefeated Miami, he impressed in a close 24-19 loss.
Elliott followed that up by completing over 60 percent of his passes in two straight games, as North Carolina snuck by Pittsburgh and demolished Western Carolina. In his third career start, he threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns against rival N.C. State.
There is plenty to improve upon — Elliott threw a combined five interceptions to the Hurricanes and the Wolfpack — but the redshirt sophomore should have the edge for the starting job next season.
The close loss to Miami — arguably the best game UNC played all season — also coincided with the official emergence of the team’s most promising prospect on offense.
Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a former quarterback and redshirt sophomore wide receiver, had already impressed in previous games: a kick-return touchdown against Louisville, 125 yards against Duke, scores against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. But against the Hurricanes, the coaching staff decided to unleash him in full.
He completed two passes for 55 yards and a touchdown on trick plays that brought the crowd into a frenzy. The best game of his college career followed, as he caught, threw for and ran a kick back for a score against Pittsburgh. Ratliff-Williams ended up leading UNC in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards on the year.
A defense, which for the first time under Fedora was expected to be the stronger unit than its counterpart, finished 101st in the FBS with 436.1 yards allowed per game. It allowed 525 total yards to Lamar Jackson on Sept. 9 — the most by a single player against UNC in its history.
More times rather than not, the defense would hold for a half or three quarters before eventually allowing a back-breaking touchdown. The offense’s inconsistency played a major role in that happening.
If North Carolina wants to reach .500 next year, it starts with scoring, scoring and more scoring.
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