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Column: UNC’s loss to UVA shows it was never CFP-bound, but the season isn’t over yet

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UNC junior wide receiver Devontez 'Tez' Walker (9) catches a pass in the Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023 game against UVA. UNC lost 27-31. 

Tar Heel fans, forget about the College Football Playoff. UNC’s 31-27 meltdown against a one-win Virginia team derailed that hype train on Saturday.

The embarrassing home loss, which saw the Cavaliers overcome a second-half, double-digit deficit against the 23.5-point favored Tar Heels all but confirmed that North Carolina was never meant to contend for a national title this year. 

But depending on how quickly UNC can regroup, the season isn’t a lost cause (yet).

“What we're destined for and what we were striving for this offseason was the ACC Championship,” sophomore quarterback Drake Maye said. “That’s still in reach. We’re trying to put this one behind us, learn from it and get back after it because that’s [our end goal].”

Looking ahead, there’s hope for the Tar Heels, who can still end conference play with just one loss and potentially earn a trip to the ACC title game. But with regards to Saturday's loss, how much can be learned, realistically?

Virginia is bad. Like, really bad. Plenty of metrics would corroborate, the simplest of which is points scored and allowed. The Cavaliers entered Saturday ranked dead-last in the ACC in scoring offense and defense.

So with just over nine minutes left to play in the third quarter and a 24-14 lead, all North Carolina needed to seal the game was to get a stop and put the ball back in Maye’s hands. But instead, the Cavaliers went on a 74-yard drive, capped off by UVA running back Mike Hollins’ third touchdown of the night.

“If some of you aren’t ready to play, then you start getting relaxed again,” head coach Mack Brown said. “That’s a time when the defense had to step up and stop them immediately, get a three-and-out and extend the score, and we didn’t.”

After that, everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong and North Carolina never reached the end zone in the game’s final 24 minutes.

Having a Heisman-hopeful in Maye under center only goes so far when primary wideouts like Nate McCollum — who had two receptions and multiple wide-open drops on 11 targets — disappear. 

Clinging on to a 3-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels looked like they were in panic mode. With just under nine minutes remaining, Virginia receiver Malik Washington bulldozed his way to the end zone as multiple UNC defenders bounced off him like pinballs.

From there, with a 4-point lead, the Cavaliers never looked back.

“It’s gonna be uncomfortable conversations tomorrow, but it’s needed,” senior jack Kaimon Rucker said. “We lost, so we gotta have these conversations in order to move forward and win out for the rest of the season. That’s our plan.”

Obviously, winning out is easier said than done. 

Up next is a road game at Georgia Tech, who has won four of its last five games against UNC. Then, after what’s essentially a bye week against Campbell, UNC faces a top-20 Duke team that’s been playing its best football in nearly three decades. To close out the year, the Tar Heels would have to beat Clemson in Death Valley and N.C. State in Raleigh.

And while the road back to the conference championship will be exponentially tougher now, all because Virginia decided to write a new chapter in the ever-so-underwhelming “South’s Oldest Rivalry," it’s still doable.

But as for the predictions that the Tar Heels could've been a sleeper pick for the CFP? Saturday’s collapse showed that was a pipe dream all along.

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.