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Saturday January 28th

Uncertainty envelops UNC football program following ACC Championship Game loss

UNC junior wide receiver Josh Downs (11) slides into the end zone during the 2022 Subway ACC Football Championship Game against Clemson at the Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. UNC fell to Clemson 39-10.
Buy Photos UNC junior wide receiver Josh Downs (11) slides into the end zone during the 2022 Subway ACC Football Championship Game against Clemson at the Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. UNC fell to Clemson 39-10.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just a few weeks ago, the North Carolina football team's confidence seemed to be at an all-time high.

Behind then-Heisman contender quarterback Drake Maye, the Tar Heels clinched a berth in the ACC Championship Game by defeating Wake Forest at Truist Field on Nov. 12.

However, the team that limped into Bank of America Stadium on Saturday looked wholly different. After a 39-10 thumping by the Tigers, UNC's third-straight loss, the window of opportunity to turn the season from good to great seemed to slam shut on the Tar Heels.

"Every loss is demoralizing because you want to win so bad," head coach Mack Brown said. "You want expectations. Some people get mad when you lose. Now, that's good, because (the fans) didn't care when we got here. There wasn't anybody in the stands and nobody cared when we won five and lost 18 in two years."

UNC got the start it wanted against Clemson by scoring a touchdown on its first drive and forcing two consecutive 3-and-outs in the first quarter. Even after going into halftime down 24-10, the offense drove into the red zone in its second series of the second half with a chance to make it a one-score game.

Instead, Maye threw an interception that Clemson defensive back Nate Wiggins returned for a 98-yard touchdown. Fifth-year senior Drew Swinney, the son of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, successfully ran in a two-point conversion attempt to give the Tigers a 22-point lead and squash out any chance of a UNC comeback.

Now, an air of uncertainty surrounds this UNC team, who will play its final game of the 2022 campaign against No. 15 Oregon at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif. on Dec. 28.

A handful of NFL hopefuls will likely choose to sit out the bowl game to avoid injury risk, the most notable being Josh Downs. After hauling in 11 catches for 100 yards against Clemson, the junior wide receiver seemed to indicate in a since-deleted Instagram story that Saturday was his last game in a UNC uniform.

"Tar Heel nation. It was a pleasure," Downs captioned the photo of his cleats.

Downs is one of the most prolific pass-catchers in UNC's history, as his 101 receptions and 1,335 receiving yards set single-season school records in 2021. With his family in the stands on Saturday, the undersized high school player turned college star reflected on his time at UNC.

"When I was in high school, I was a smaller guy," Downs said. "Coach Galloway, coach Longo, coach Mack, they never changed on me — so, Carolina means the world to me."

As the season reaches its conclusion, the transfer portal is also heating up, opening the door for Tar Heel players to explore next season's options.

Backup quarterback Jacolby Criswell, who competed with Maye for the job up through the end of the preseason, announced on Twitter Sunday morning that he would be transferring. Given the current climate of college football, he likely won't be UNC's only rostered player to open up his recruiting to other schools.

Sophomore linebacker Raneiria 'Rara' Dillworth also announced his decision to transfer on Sunday. The former four-star prospect played in ten games and tallied 13 tackles and assisted on two sacks this season.

Before the ACC Championship Game, Brown expressed his frustration with NIL's role in college athlete's decisions to transfer.

"I sat down and did lunch with one of our starters the other day," Brown said in a press conference last Monday. "I said, 'Are you getting calls?' He said, 'Coach, I've got 15 places I can go.' He said, 'I'm not going anywhere.' I said, 'Are they offering you money?' He said, 'Yes, 100 percent.'"

Despite the rumors swirling around him, Maye indicated following the Clemson loss that his plan, at least for now, was to return to Chapel Hill for his third season of college ball.

"That is my intention," Maye responded when asked if he would play for UNC next season. "I am a Carolina kid. It means something to wear that Carolina Blue."

@lucasthomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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