CHARLOTTE — It feels like the fall of 1997 in Chapel Hill.
A Mack Brown-led North Carolina football team was coming off of a 1996 season that saw 10 wins, including a victory in the Gator Bowl, and the Tar Heels were ranked No. 7 in preseason polls. UNC would go on to have one of the best seasons in program history, finishing with an 11-1 record.
Now, 24 years later, the Tar Heels are coming off an 8-4 season and an Orange Bowl appearance, and the hype surrounding the program is much like head coach Mack Brown’s first stint donning Carolina Blue.
There’s a true star quarterback behind center in Sam Howell. Graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler will fill the holes left by by NFL draftees Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and he will run through holes opened by an offensive line that returns all five starters.
Meanwhile, the defense returns all but one starter, with players like sophomores Desmond Evans and Tony Grimes gaining more experience in the offseason and veteran linebackers Tomon Fox and Jeremiah Gemmel set to lead the unit.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned after 32 years is that nothing is ever guaranteed,” Brown said during Wednesday's 2021 ACC Football Kickoff at the Westin Hotel in Charlotte. “About the time you think something is going to happen in sports, it doesn’t.
“You’ve gotta do the best job you can do every day, you don’t have a day off, you don’t have a minute off … We are circled on every board for everybody that we beat last year, and we understand that, so it’s time for us to grow up and play up if we’re going to talk up.”
Last season featured some examples of what Brown meant by nothing being guaranteed for the Tar Heels. In October, No. 5-ranked UNC went to Tallahassee to face a struggling Florida State — and came out of what seemed like a surefire win with a 31-28 loss. The same thing happened again as Virginia pulled off an upset against UNC on Halloween.
But even in those losses, UNC's highly touted quarterback shone. Howell was recently added to the watchlists for the Davey O’Brien Award — awarded to the best quarterback in the nation — and Maxwell Award — awarded to the best all-around player, as well as being considered a contender to win the Heisman Trophy. He, however, isn’t paying too much attention to all the accolade talk.
“I don’t get too caught up in what other people are saying," Howell said. "I’m just worried about what I think of myself, what the people close to me say. That’s the same mindset of my team. We’ve had a lot of hype. Main thing we try to tell our guys, if people say we’re going to win 10, 12 games, it’s not just going to happen.”
The defense should be just as talked about as Howell, though. After just losing just one starter in linebacker Chazz Surratt to the draft, this young but talented defense has the potential to be one of the best in the ACC, and possibly even the NCAA. The defense added one of the best prospects in the country in defensive lineman Keeshawn Silver, as well as five other four-star prospects in their 2021 recruiting class to an already solid unit.
“We expect to be more of a dangerous defense this year," Fox said. "We only lost one player, but we gained many more leaders on the team. We also have a lot more depth in terms of the young guys. Keeshawn and them, they’ve been pushing hard through spring ball, through summer workouts. I feel like they’re going to help us a lot in terms of having depth on the D-line, keeping some of the older guys fresh.”
None of this hype, whether it’s about the team, Howell or the defense, will mean anything unless UNC lives up to it on the field. The first test will come on Sept. 3 when the Tar Heels open the season in a Friday-night matchup against Virginia Tech in the dangerous environment of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.
Brown echoed this, telling the media to pump the brakes on the hype. Instead of focusing on a game in the middle of the season, he said the focus needs to be on the season opener against the Virginia Tech Hokies.
“We’ve gotten hype, we’ve been hugged, we’ve had sugar thrown all over us, we’re all enjoying it, we like it," Brown said. "Let’s clean it off and let’s get back to facts.”
This season seems like it has the makings to live up to 1997, but before UNC football fans hop on the hype train, Mack Brown wants his Tar Heels to win a few games first.