North Carolina was the No. 10 football team in the nation heading into Friday night’s game against Virginia Tech.
But when the clock hit zero at a sold-out Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, the only 10 that stood out was the number of points the Tar Heels could muster in the loss against the Hokies.
“This team is not giving up," head coach Mack Brown said. "The shine is off and the rating sure doesn’t matter tonight. We were overrated with the way we played.”
For a team with conference title aspirations, losing the season opener was likely far from what Brown and Co. envisioned heading into week one. Of course, neither was scoring only 10 points with an offense led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in junior Sam Howell.
However, at the end of Friday night, there should only be one thought on everyone’s mind:
The season is not over.
Yes, Howell threw three interceptions. Yes, every time it seemed like UNC was gaining momentum, Virginia Tech made a play to shift that momentum right back their way.
But the season is not over.
“I think as a team we can’t let this game define us. We know what this team is capable of, and we didn’t show that tonight,” Howell said. “We have two options as a team — we either can let this one game affect us the rest of the season or we can just forget about it. There’s nothing we can do about it now. We can just keep getting better.”
Think back to the 2015 season opener, when the Tar Heels lost to South Carolina, 17-13.
In that game, UNC’s star quarterback Marquise Williams threw a touchdown and three interceptions, two of which were picked off in the end zone, with one of those eventually sealing the game for the Gamecocks. A trusty receiver in Bug Howard had six receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown, making a play whenever it was needed.
Despite losing that season opener, the Tar Heels went on to run the table, winning their next 11 games before making it to the ACC Championship where they faced Clemson.
Now think back to tonight.
UNC’s star quarterback threw a touchdown and three interceptions, one of which sealed the game for the opposing team. A trusty receiver for UNC in sophomore Josh Downs had eight receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown, including the one that made Howell the school's all-time touchdown leader with 69.
The similarities between the two openers are eerie.
There are no guarantees that the Tar Heels will run the table and make the ACC Championship this year, but losing the season opener and then shaking it off is a blueprint that has already been established.
“A hard loss like this early in the season, I think that just brings the team closer together and the position groups closer together,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “It’s going to make practice that much more competitive and make the scout teams that much more competitive, so I think this can be somewhat good for us.”
North Carolina has an uphill battle the rest of the season. There will be games against Florida State and Virginia — both teams the Tar Heels dropped winnable contests against last year — as well as Miami and Notre Dame, two dangerous teams that are also looking to make a push for the college football playoff.
No team volunteers to start a season 0-1.
But if the Tar Heels want to reach the goals they believe they are capable of reaching, an early September roadblock will hurt far less than one in late November.
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