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.