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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC football reconciles with dashed ACC Championship hopes after disappointing second half of season


UNC senior jack Kaimon Rucker (25) tackles his opponent during the football game against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Nov. 18. UNC lost 31-20.

CLEMSON, S.C. — Drake Maye lowered his head into his hands and pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb as he answered questions from the media about UNC's 31-20 loss to Clemson on Saturday.

With the defeat, UNC football’s ACC Championship hopes were officially dashed.

“It’s definitely devastating,” he said. “I think if we still had a chance going into today we had to do our part. That’s what we’ve worked for, That's what we were grinding all season for and to have that goal out of sight is a bummer.” 

At Clemson, the Tar Heels failed to do their part — falling to the Tigers in their largest margin of defeat this season — placing UNC out of contention for a berth in the conference title game. After UNC's historic 6-0 start this season, this current situation could've been perceived as almost unfathomable.

Even before the final whistle sounded in Death Valley and Tiger fans started to swarm the field, the end of the Tar Heels' season had technically been decided. Midway through UNC's clash with Clemson, No. 10 Louisville clinched its spot in the title game with a win over Miami— a nail in the coffin for North Carolina, whose sliver of a chance required both a Cardinal loss and a road upset on Saturday.

The Tar Heels faced a windy road to the ACC Championship — a path directly antithetical to UNC's preseason hopes of cruising to the title game in Charlotte.

With Heisman-hopeful Maye under center, coupled with multiple highly-touted transfers, the idea of North Carolina making it to the College Football Playoff was once tossed around with sincerity.

Following UNC's dominant 31-13 victory over Minnesota on Sept. 16, graduate defensive back Armani Chatman claimed the team could “go 15-0” and “win a national championship” — something that Maye was quick to corroborate from the side of the Kenan Football Center lobby, where he was watching the press conference.

Those dreams died when North Carolina fell to a then 1-5 Virginia squad, raising serious questions about its potential. With hopes of a national championship gone — however far-fetched — the team turned its attention to the conference title instead. 

“What we’re destined for and what we were striving for this offseason was the ACC Championship,” Maye said following the UVA game on Oct. 21. “That’s still in reach.”

The team was unable to follow through, losing to Georgia Tech the next week and casting a shadow of doubt over postseason goals.

That shadow has now completely eclipsed those dreams.

“One of the reasons I came back here was to get back to the ACC Championship,” senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “Obviously, with Louisville winning and us losing today that won’t be happening. But, you know, it is what it is.”

Any number of adjectives could describe UNC's premature ending-before-the-ending: frustrating, disheartening, lackluster — the list goes on. But perhaps the best way to sum it up came when Maye got up to return to the locker room following the conclusion of North Carolina's postgame press conference.

He walked the few feet from the media setup to the door, only to find himself locked out. He tried to pull a few times before resorting to a reluctant knock.

The door was shut on Maye, and so too was it closed on the sputtering aspirations of UNC football.


@dthsports |

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Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.