Larry Fedora is now 40-24 through five seasons at UNC with his fourth bowl game still to come in 2016. But, sadly, for Tar Heel fans he also has amassed a record of bad endings.
While the current 8-4 season gives Fedora four winning teams in five tries, it is a bad year around here if you lose to both Duke and State. And Fedora’s Tar Heels did that for the first time this fall. Despite victories at Florida State and Miami and wins over two other FBS bowl-bound teams (Pitt and Georgia Tech), another poor finish is nevertheless disheartening.
Fedora’s five-year tenure has been characterized by an exciting offense, good overall recruiting and the ability to “coach up” two- and three-star signees who eventually become contributing players. He has also been criticized as too pass happy (“like playing video games,” says one fan), inconsistency throughout the season and, especially, bad defense that two-year coordinator Gene Chizik has been unable to fully fix.
Carolina’s only strong finish in the last five seasons came in Fedora’s first year, 2012, when the Tar Heels won three of their last four games (giving up 68 points at home to Georgia Tech in the loss) and tied for the Coastal Division championship even with a last-play loss at Duke. They won the tie-breaker and would have been in the ACC championship game if not for the NCAA post-season ban. Since then, even the best seasons have ended with a thud.
In 2013, they rallied from a 1-5 start that included a 55-31 loss at home to East Carolina to win five consecutive games including a second straight W over N.C. State; but Fedora dropped to 0-2 against Duke on Senior Day after UNC had beaten the Blue Devils 21 of the prior 22. That 6-6 finish was saved by a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati to give Fedora a second straight winning season.
The 2014 campaign featured a four-game losing streak in which Carolina gave up 70 points at East Carolina, but the Heels won four of the next five and demolished Duke 40-25 only to lay a big blue egg against State on Senior Day. Another 6-6 record and then a dismal loss to Rutgers in the bowl game at Detroit’s Ford Field. After giving up more total points (507) than they scored (432), and finishing 6-7, Fedora fired his entire defensive staff and brought in Chizik to rebuild that side of the ball. It worked for a while.
Winning the Coastal Division outright in 2015, Carolina scored 570 points and gave up 343, which was an improvement until yielding a combined 94 to Clemson and Baylor in the ACC championship game and Russell Athletic Bowl. After somehow losing to a bad South Carolina team in the opener at Bank of America Stadium, the Tar Heels had won 11 straight against a manageable schedule and beat Duke and State in the same season for Fedora’s first time.
The regular season that just ended with another Senior Day defeat to State 15 days after a six-point second half and 28-27 loss at Duke was the most confounding in Fedora’s five here. Great comebacks highlighted a home win over Pitt and trip to Tallahassee. The Heels followed a dreadful home loss to Coastal Champion Virginia Tech in the rainstorm with a win at Miami – the first time a UNC team has ever beaten the Seminoles and Hurricanes on the road in the same season – blasted Georgia Tech at home and then finished by losing to Duke and State around beating The Citadel (their second FCS win). Through 12 games, they have scored (397) and given up (299) the fewest points in the Fedora era.
It’s a long season from the first weekend in September to the last in November, but strange things happened that make these latest Tar Heels hard to figure. They lost to Georgia in the opener and clobbered Georgia Tech in Game 9. Then the Bulldogs lost to the Yellow Jackets at home on rivalry weekend. UNC dropped the one-pointer at Duke, which subsequently got blown out by Pitt and Miami, two teams the Heels defeated.
Against Duke and State, the in-state rivals fans care more about than any other opponents, Carolina could not rally in the fourth quarter and could not stop either opponent for most of the game. Fedora’s offense and Chizik’s defense were outplayed by teams that looked better prepared and, consequently, saved otherwise non-winning regular seasons.
You cannot blame 20-year-olds for not fully understanding how much those games mean to the people who pay for their scholarships and buy the tickets to see them play; that’s the responsibility of the coaches until they are blue in the face. Yet, the Tar Heels yapped too much at the Dukies and got pushed around by the Wolfies, both in embarrassing fashion.
So far, Fedora is not equal to three of Carolina’s best football coaches – Bill Dooley, Dick Crum and Mack Brown, who each stayed at least 10 seasons and combined for four ACC titles and 18 bowl bids, but none of whom could quite get their programs over the national hump. All had great players and future pros, from Don McCauley to Lawrence Taylor to Greg Ellis. Fedora has already had his share in half the time – Gio, Quinshad, Marquise, Switz and Mitch, to name a few.
But with Switzer gone and Trubisky probably going, Fedora has a lot of work to do moving forward: more balance on offense, more consistency from week to week and a lot better defense than even Chizik has brought to the table if The Hat’s to get where he wants to go.