But then it happened… almost.
UNC's greatest achievement this season might have actually been a loss. The Tigers narrowly escaped Chapel Hill, 21-20, after a defensive stand on UNC’s late two-point conversion attempt that could have won the game.
A close call with the top team in the country had UNC's ACC Coastal championship hype train fully back in motion. Mack was back again with his Tar Heels heading into the rest of conference play.
The next three games saw UNC roll through Georgia Tech, suffer a historic six overtime loss against Virginia Tech — the first game to enact college football's new overtime rules — and beat Duke on a last-minute interception by linebacker Chazz Surratt.
With a 3-2 record in conference play, there was still a sliver of hope for UNC to win its division. But that hope was squashed when the team lost to eventual division champion Virginia. Following another loss to Pittsburgh in overtime, the Tar Heels needed to win their final two games in order to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2016.
And win they did.
After blowout victories over Mercer and N.C. State, North Carolina was going bowling.UNC finished the season strong, and Mack Brown capped off his storybook return to UNC with an emphatic 55-13 victory over Temple in the Military Bowl.
Sam Howell dazzled again, and Mack was back in the bowl win: two themes that dominated the Tar Heels’ season.
Howell was expected to be a good quarterback when he flipped his commitment from Florida State to North Carolina, but no one could have predicted the historic season the first-year phenom had.
En route to being named the ACC Freshman of the Year, Howell broke the NCAA record for passing touchdowns by a true first-year and UNC’s single-season passing touchdown record with 35 touchdowns.
But Howell wasn’t the only quarterback that stood out.
Surratt, a former quarterback, had a smooth transition to the linebacker position. He was North Carolina’s only first-team All-ACC performer, and led the team with 115 total tackles.
Both of those storylines will continue into next year as both players are returning. That is one of the things that makes UNC fans so optimistic after this season. The Tar Heels exceeded expectations in this historic season and will return the majority of their starters on offense, along with some highly-ranked recruits coming to Chapel Hill.
The hopeful feeling about the rise of the North Carolina football program will continue as Mack Brown signed a one-year extension following the season, signaling that the Hall of Fame coach is dedicated to rebuilding North Carolina football.
Mack is back, and it looks like he's here to stay.
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