In the closing months of 1997, it looked like UNC could become a football school.
The transition began in October, when the Tar Heels' legendary basketball coach, Dean Smith, retired unexpectedly.
Although the next chapter for the basketball program was a mystery, fans could take solace in a rising football team led by a young head coach named Mack Brown. Later in October, the Tar Heels rose to No. 4 in the national rankings and seemed destined to become a perennial national power.
Until they weren’t.
Shortly before the season ended, Brown left Chapel Hill for a more lucrative coaching opportunity at Texas, which effectively stunted the growth of the upstart program.
Following his departure, bowl games were made and conference championships were played for, but it was clear the edge was missing. Even the school’s greatest athlete, Michael Jordan, tried to light a fire by sponsoring the team with his Jordan Brand. After signing the deal, the Tar Heels posted a 5-18 record in their new threads.
If the “look good, play good” enthusiasts were looking for advocates, Kenan Memorial Stadium was not the place to find them.
But then, 21 years after the Tar Heels seemingly peaked, an old hope was restored. Brown — after leaving Texas for a few years in broadcasting — announced that he was coming back to coach the team. The excitement within the program returned, but asking a team to compete for national attention when it hadn’t beaten an FBS opponent not named Pittsburgh in over two years seemed a little far-fetched.
Although Brown was six years removed from coaching his last collegiate game, UNC flipped the switch and gained the respect of national college football pundits in the 2019 season. Through its high-powered offense led by true first-year quarterback Sam Howell and an improved defense, the Tar Heels finished the season with a modest 7-6 record and a bowl victory, but it was clear the team had something to build on.
After trudging through an offseason unlike any other, UNC opened the year ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, its first top-25 ranking since 2016. After jumping out to a 3-0 start, the Tar Heels found themselves in a territory they hadn’t entered since the glory days of 1997 — the top five.
While the 1997 squad built its reputation through a stout defense that featured future NFL standout — and current UNC assistant coach — Dré Bly, this year’s unit is geared toward putting up points in bunches. Even after the Tar Heels' offense was stifled against Notre Dame, they ranked 12th nationally in scoring offense with 43.1 points per game, and fifth in total yardage with 563.4 yards per game. As Howell lights up defenses through the air, the tag-team rushing duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter do their job of barreling over defenders out of the backfield, each averaging nearly 100 yards per game.
Despite all of the praise the team receives, there are still areas North Carolina needs to improve in if it wants to become a top five mainstay in the coming years.
Focus is one example. After catapulting into the top five, the Tar Heels slept through the first half against Florida State and couldn’t dig themselves out of the hole. Two weeks later against Virginia, it was a defense that couldn’t muster a stop when the game hung in the balance. Ultimately, these lapses led to UNC falling outside the top-25 rankings for the first time this year after the loss to the Cavaliers.
Rankings are useful for gauging how a team compares to its competitors. However, these measures are only temporary. UNC football has a new identity, and if it continues to progress like it has these last two seasons, high expectations could become the new normal.
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