MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — What if?
It's the question North Carolina football fans will be mulling over in their heads for years to come after Saturday night's 41-27 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl, the Tar Heels' first major bowl game since before Mack Brown was even born.
It's what they'll be mumbling under their breath around their homes for the foreseeable future, passing down the lore of the historic upset that North Carolina was on the brink of to the next batch of UNC fanatics.
What if the All-American backfield duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams had carried the ball in place of walk-on British Brooks and three-star high school recruit Josh Henderson?
What if Dyami Brown, UNC's first receiver to post back-to-back seasons with 1,000 receiving yards, lined up against Texas A&M's defensive backs instead of Antoine Green or Justin Olson, who combined for just 15 career receptions coming into the Orange Bowl?
What if Chazz Surratt, one of the ACC's best linebackers and North Carolina's defensive leader, took the field beside fellow inside linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel in the place of sophomore Eugene Asante, who only recorded five-plus tackles in one game this regular season?
Those are just a few of the obvious examples from the series of impossible-to-answer hypotheticals that this team and fanbase could kick themselves over until UNC accomplishes some feat impressive enough to repress the memory of this fourth-quarter collapse.
For sophomore passer Sam Howell and the rest of the Tar Heels, though, there's a simple answer to each part of that line of questioning.
"Honestly, I’m not even thinking about that," Howell said. "I’m past those guys opting out, you know, I love all those guys to death. Most of those guys are my best friends, but it is what it is. I thought our guys out there played good enough for us to win the game."
And Howell's right.
There were certainly flashes of that potential in Hard Rock Stadium. Moments where it seemed like Brown or Carter or Surratt had sneaked down from their seats in the stands to suit up for a series or two.
Anybody casually passing by the game on television could've easily mixed up UNC first-year Josh Downs with Brown, his veteran counterpart, during the younger receiver's dynamic 75-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter.
Fans caught brief glimpses of powerful Williams-esque attacks on the ground, like Brooks' 17-yard rush on UNC's second drive of the game that only a facemask penalty could bring to a halt.
Some may have even needed a double take when they witnessed Asante rise to the occasion midway through the second quarter and tackle a scrambling Kellen Mond with eyes set on the end zone to force fourth down, holding the Aggies to a field goal.
"Our coaches did an outstanding job of trying to take what we had and figure out how we can get the ball in other people’s hands," Brown said of his staff after the game.
In the end, though, glimpses were all they were. The winded defense could only hold on for so long, and the mirage eventually faded in the final quarter.
Now, all that's left to do — besides ask your friends and yourself, "What if?" — is look to the future of this program that's under Brown's guidance with at least one more year of Howell at the helm of a budding young group that went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country.
“We’re really close," Gemmel said. "They’re a No. 5 team who a lot of people thought should’ve been in the (College Football) Playoff, and we had them tied up with seven, six minutes left, and they busted one for a long touchdown. You take that out, no telling it could’ve been different for us.”
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