Around this same time just one year ago, hopes couldn’t have been any higher for the North Carolina football team.
For three quarters of the 87th Orange Bowl, the No. 14 Tar Heels led No. 5 Texas A&M — a team that thought itself ready for the College Football Playoff — before eventually losing 41-27 after the Aggies hung 24 on UNC in the fourth. But even with the loss, after an 8-4 season resulted in a near-win against a top-five team, the world saw bright lights ahead.
With a 2021 recruiting class that ranked 14th in the nation, head coach Mack Brown himself was drinking the hyped-up Kool-Aid.
“We’re about to be really good, and I’m excited about that,” Brown said after the Orange Bowl.
But a year later, that “really good” team just hasn’t materialized.
Instead, the Tar Heels regressed to a 6-7 record, including early season upset losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State, a devastating last-second collapse to N.C. State to close out the regular season and a 38-21 thrashing from a quarterback-less South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Even just partway through the season, that Kool-Aid began tasting much more bitter.
“The national media expectation, the expectations for us to be a top-10 team were wrong,” Brown said after the loss to Florida State. “So I guess we should all be critical of the media for picking us too high, because we’re not that good.”
So the question becomes: What happened to derail this season?
First off, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, one that Brown hinted at after the Orange Bowl but was downplayed during the season — losing more than 4,000 yards of total offense hurts … a lot.
That’s how many yards Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome combined for in that 8-4 season. After that season, those four stars — maybe the four best weapons quarterback Sam Howell ever had in Chapel Hill — jetted off to the NFL, leaving Howell and Co. to pick up the pieces and rebuild the puzzle without them. The absence of that quartet may not have mattered as much in the Orange Bowl, but the holes they left in the offense grew large and apparent the following season.
While transfer tailback Ty Chandler and sophomore receiver Josh Downs did their best to fill their respective two-man holes themselves, each having 1,000-yard seasons, the days of two backs rushing for a combined 544 yards in ACC games were over. Opponents knew that Downs was the downfield danger and Chandler was the most competent back on the team, and they were attacked accordingly.
This meant that Howell himself needed to become more dynamic, running more designed runs and scrambling for more yards than ever before. And while his more than 3,000 yards of total offense were impressive, they didn’t always correlate with wins — he exceeded 200 passing yards and over 100 rushing yards in that loss to the Seminoles, and better than 440 yards of total offense in a November loss to Notre Dame.
And even while Howell, Downs and Chandler were doing their best to make up for lost yards, the defense seemed content to give up just as many. It’s hard to overlook the underperformance of former defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s unit that was littered with four- and five-star recruits.
There were haunting tales of not adequately preparing for mobile quarterbacks — Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims, Florida State’s Jordan Travis and South Carolina’s Dakereon Joyner all come to mind — resulting in upset losses. Even when the offense could scrape out a win, it almost came in spite of the defense, like an 59-39 blowout win over Virginia when quarterback Brennan Armstrong was still able to notch 554 passing yards and four touchdowns.
Brown was clearly upset with Bateman’s performances, resulting in both his and special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt’s exits. In their place, he has hired Gene Chizik as assistant head coach of defense and Charlton Warren as co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Hopefully with Chizik’s championship pedigree and Warren’s near-two decades of defensive coaching experience, the star-studded defense can finally learn to act as a single cohesive unit.
But the even larger question becomes: Could this happen again?
The 2022 recruiting class is ranked eighth in the nation per 247Sports — UNC’s highest ranking in history. Among that class are new defensive pieces for Chizik to play with like five-star lineman Travis Shaw and Adidas all-American linebacker Sebastian Cheeks, as well as five-star offensive lineman Zach Rice and two new pairs of four-star tailbacks and wideouts.
At the same time, the team is losing its most dynamic offensive weapon and leader in Howell, as well as a 1,000-yard back in Chandler. And while four-star, first-year QB Drake Maye has been slated to fill that role, that’s not 100 percent certain yet. It sure sounds a lot like last year then — lots of production out the door with no guaranteed way to fill it.
But it’s just that. Nothing is guaranteed — not the astronomical highs predicted for the team last year, nor a repeat of last season. Nobody knows how next season will go, maybe least of all the Tar Heels.
We’ll just have to wait and see, and maybe keep our expectations managed.
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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