The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday January 20th

Analysis: Despite high hopes, UNC's football season did not pan out as expected

UNC junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) hands the ball to graduate student running back Ty Chandler (19) at the game against Georgia State on Sept. 11 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 59-17.
Buy Photos UNC junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) hands the ball to graduate student running back Ty Chandler (19) at the game against Georgia State on Sept. 11 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 59-17.

Friday night, things looked great for the North Carolina football team with 02:12 left in the game. Up 30-21, fans were optimistic that the Tar Heels would come away from Carter-Finley Stadium victorious against No. 20 N.C. State.

All of a sudden, the team started to come apart. UNC allowed two touchdowns just 24 seconds apart from each other and even let N.C. State recover the rarely successful onside kick. Just like that, what looked to be a promising outcome turned into the team’s sixth loss of the season, putting them at an even 6-6 record.

In reality, UNC’s loss against the Wolfpack was a microcosm of their season as a whole.

The team came into the season ranked 10th in the nation, with junior quarterback and Heisman hopeful Sam Howell under center. In head coach Mack Brown’s third season back in Chapel Hill, the team looked to turn a corner and find its place among college football powerhouses. Optimism surrounded the team based on its performance in the Orange Bowl at the end of last season, reflected in UNC’s lofty preseason ranking.

There were signs from the beginning, though, that it would be difficult for the Tar Heels to match their success from the previous campaign.

The team lost four of its best offensive assets from a year ago, with running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown all departing. These four combined for 4,761 yards of offense and 48 touchdowns. The high expectations for Howell, a projected first round draft pick by some, did not account for the assets lost on offense. 

Howell established a strong connection on the field with sophomore receiver Josh Downs, who finished the regular season with 98 catches for 1,273 yards and eight scores. Beyond that, the rest of the receiving core didn’t get involved enough for UNC to take its passing attack to the next level. The second receiving option on the team, senior Antoine Green, was short by 71 catches and 734 yards to Downs.

The running game was on again, off again with graduate transfer Ty Chandler. He delivered three games of at least 100 yards on the ground, including a 213-yard, four-touchdown performance against Wake Forest. Other games, he struggled to hit 75 yards.

The defense struggled to get stops most of the year, as the 31.6 points per game it allowed was two points worse than its mark from last season. The team also went 0-5 on the road, which kept it from being a real threat to most of the ranked teams that it faced.

After mustering just 10 points in its season-opening loss to Virginia Tech, the team dropped 14 spots in the rankings. The Tar Heels seemed to bounce back briefly with back-to-back 59-point outings at home. The through line in these games, though, was the 39 points UNC surrendered to Virginia with the Cavaliers’ quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, throwing 554 yards on the UNC defense.

UNC then traveled to Georgia Tech and was dominated in a 23-point loss, which knocked them out of the top-25 where the team would never return. The season couldn’t get more up and down from there, as the team would not win or lose in consecutive weeks after this game.

UNC had its moments throughout the season. The most important win of its season came against Wake Forest, as they topped the Demon Deacons, 58-55. It was the team’s only win against a ranked opponent, as the team fell just short against other top-25 opponents.

After its win against Wofford, UNC clinched bowl game eligibility. Its opponent remains to be seen, but the team has an opportunity to notch one last meaningful win in what might be the last game of the Sam Howell era.

After their bowl game, the Tar Heels will get a clean slate in 2022, when the team will get the chance to completely move on from the explosive 2020 team and rebuild once again.

@jerem11ah

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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