The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday January 17th

Despite loss, Orange Bowl shows how bright UNC football’s future can be

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Screw the five-year plan.

Forget the precious prognosticating about “the long term.” No more hand-wringing about “steady progress,” or “baby steps,” or “building a culture.” And feel free to drop entirely the interminable talk of “the future,” whatever that even means.

For the North Carolina football team, the future is now — or, at the very least, the future is imminent. And it’s bright. 

The epilogue to the 2020-2021 season, a 41-27 loss to Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, wasn’t the one the Tar Heels wanted. But it did feature glimpses of what’s to come — enough to ensure that the buzz for UNC as an ACC contender, and maybe more than that, grows even louder.

“This is going to be a special team,” head coach Mack Brown said. “Our three and a half quarters against Notre Dame showed that. Tonight, we showed that. We’re about to be really good, and I’m excited about that.”

The Aggies, lest you forget, were the No. 5 team in the country entering Saturday night, a hair away from making this year’s College Football Playoff. 

No. 13 UNC, meanwhile, was without Chazz Surratt, the best player on a middling defense; without Dyami Brown, who paced the team with 1,099 receiving yards; and without Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, the two halves of the best running back duo in the country.

Despite all this, for three-plus quarters they still managed to compete.

There was the 28-yard touchdown pass, from Sam Howell to receiver Dazz Newsome, to give UNC its first lead of the night. There was another score, Howell to first-year receiver Josh Downs, to take a 20-17 lead early in the second half. '

And then, in the fourth quarter, there was Howell’s wheeling, dealing 75-yard touchdown to Downs, who had just one score to his name entering the game. 

For Downs —  a former four-star prospect who was getting rave reviews in the preseason — the play was as much a trailer for what could come next.

“I’ve known Josh for a long time now, and I knew he was gonna be a great player for us,” Howell said. “We know how special he is, we know how special he’s gonna be.”

But despite the Tar Heels' best efforts, from there-on-in, the game was all Aggies: a touchdown to tie it, another to take the lead and a third to put the nail in the coffin with 1:34 left. Sandwiched in between, a North Carolina turnover on downs, with plays on second and one, third and one and fourth and one all coming up short.

It was obvious — clear as a sunny Florida sky — that UNC's squad missed Carter and Williams. They tallied just 90 yards on the ground, 25 of which came from Howell. But just as obvious, and even more crucial: they were there, once again, within reach after three-plus quarters against a college football heavyweight. 

Credit to the veterans, sure, but also credit to players like Downs and first-year cornerback Tony Grimes, who notched two pass breakups and a sack and looked, like his classmates, generally unfazed.

“I’ve seen a lot of good things out there,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “I see young guys making plays. Most of the time, freshmen are timid out there in big games. But not them.”

Putting the season in perspective, a win would’ve been the cherry on top for the undermanned Tar Heels. But despite the loss, don't temper your expectations of next year's squad.

Howell. Brown. The first-years. The No. 14 recruiting class in the country, per 247Sports. And, one imagines, enough big-game chops after this season to ensure that the Tar Heels’ progress under Brown will remain on turbo.

The Tar Heels should and likely will contend for an ACC Championship in 2021, no qualifiers necessary. And if they stay on their current trajectory — and there’s not much reason to think they won’t — any theoretical five-year plan would have to include goals much, much loftier than that.

@ryantwilcox

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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