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The Daily Tar Heel

Analysis: Looking back at the last time UNC football had a 4-0 start

DTH File/Jon Gardiner

For UNC alumni from the 1990s and longtime fans, this start to the Tar Heel football season may be feeling like deja vu.

The last time the North Carolina football team started 4-0, back in 1997, quarterback Drake Maye was not even born yet. That UNC team won its first eight games, finishing the season with an 11-1 record, including a Gator Bowl win. The Tar Heels ended the season with a No. 6 AP poll ranking, and it was head coach Mack Brown's last season during his first stint in Chapel Hill.

Now, after picking up victories over South Carolina, Appalachian State, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, the No. 14 Tar Heels will look to replicate their success from 26 years ago. 

Here's a look at some of the similarities and differences between this year's team and the 1997 squad, as well as how the 2023 ACC Championship may repeat history.

Winning the line of scrimmage

Led by a prominent rushing attack and a ball-hawking defense, UNC’s roster mirrors the '97 Tar Heels in many different ways. 

While UNC's offense primarily relied on Maye's arm last year, the Tar Heels' increase in rushing productivity has lightened the passing attack's load this season. In just four games, North Carolina’s ground assault has produced an average of 167.3 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Sophomore running back Omarion Hampton has led the charge, tallying seven rushing touchdowns, which currently ties for eighth most among all NCAA running backs. The Clayton, North Carolina native's offensive yield is on pace for a season much like tailback Jonathan Linton had in 1997. In that season, Linton found the end zone 10 times and rushed for 1,004 yards.

North Carolina's pass rush highlighted its defense that year. Senior defensive end Greg Ellis, an 11-year Dallas Cowboys veteran, hounded opposing quarterbacks with nine sacks in 1997. Ellis, the program's leader in sacks, also led UNC with 18 tackles for loss.

This year's Tar Heels seem to embody the same relentless pursuit of the ball under assistant head coach for the defense Gene Chizik. So far, senior jack Kaimon Rucker has led the way with four sacks, along with a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss. Rucker's strong start to the year has already shown flashes of Ellis' dominance 26 years prior.

Unfinished business

Despite their similarities, the two teams are not carbon copies. 

While Brown has found consistency in Maye over the last two years, his quarterback situation in 1997 was unorthodox. Instead of continuously starting the same player under center, Brown chose to split time between quarterbacks Oscar Davenport and Chris Keldorf, with both signal-callers putting up similar numbers.

Even though UNC didn't have a consistent starting quarterback, the Tar Heels managed to drop only one game to then-No. 3 Florida State at home. The Tar Heels lost 20-3, in a game that was ultimately the deciding factor in the 1997 ACC regular season title.

This year, a driven Tar Heel squad looks to rewrite history as they hope to end a 43-year ACC Championship drought. And, that championship game may very well be played against the current No. 5 Seminoles.

While it's too early to predict which teams will face off in the 2023 ACC Championship game in December, a potential UNC-FSU showdown to conclude the conference race would be all too fitting for another chapter in Brown's second tenure.


@dthsports |

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