Tar Heel fans, make your bowl plans.
After a disappointing first half of the season, Carolina may be the best 1-5 college football team in America. It was a discombobulated start for a young team trying to find its way – four nationally ranked opponents, three idle Saturdays and enough self-imposed mistakes to beat themselves at least three times.
NFL teams put much stock in the second half of their seasons after their first eight games. Those in position to make a playoff push consider the slate clean and their record 0-0. That’s what Larry Fedora will undoubtedly do with the Tar Heels after they outplayed 10th-ranked Miami for much of Zero Dark Thursday before basically running out of gas down the stretch of the 27-23 loss in Kenan.
Let’s not go into the mistakes. Those who watched know about the ill-advised pass, the untimely penalties and the questionable game management with a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Those are split-second decisions that can be corrected.
The Tar Heels will carry an improving defense that forced four turnovers against the U and a far more versatile offense than began the season into their last six games on the next six Saturdays, returning to the normal routine of college football. And the schedule is infinitely more manageable, the table runnable, four of the six at home.
Bruising Boston College visits this Saturday, which may be the toughest game until 5-2 Duke buses over for the finale on November 30. Then comes beaten-up N.C. State in Raleigh, a Virginia team that just gave up 35 unanswered points to Duke, a visit to beatable Pitt and a home-game breather against Old Dominion before the Blue Devils arrive two days after Thanksgiving.
And look who is coming on for Carolina, which by the way blew out the uniform popularity vote among youngsters watching on ESPN Thursday night. Miami might have pulled out the game in the last 16 seconds, but the Hurricanes’ pabulum plain whites had long before been forgotten compared to the black home unis with blue trim jumping off them. Who wouldn’t want to wear those togs on a Thursday night on national TV? The Tar Heels looked and played tough.
Marquise Williams is dangerous, and opponents now know it. T.J. Logan has awoken a dormant running game and Eric Ebron is looking more like an NFL draft pick with every athletic, acrobatic move. Trust me, after watching Miami slip out of town with a most fortunate win, no one wants to play Carolina from here.
Even the defense, which has cost coordinator Vic Koenning his voice and a piece of his front tooth imploring a young, patched-up unit to come together, is starting to show less difference between seniors Kareem Martin, Jabari Price and Tre Boston and unders like Dominique Green, Jeff Schoettmer and Malik Simmons.
With the routine of six games in six weeks – Monday meeting, Tuesday and Wednesday practice, Thursday polishing the game plan and Friday winding down – the remaining opponents leave the opportunity to build confidence each week and get better each week and, ultimately, win each week.
Certainly, some teams with such a poor start could pack it in and begin thinking about the off-season or next year. But that’s how college football differs from the NFL, where there are only 12 playoffs spots. There are three times as many bowl berths, and the ACC has tie-ins with, what, eight post-season games? So winning six or seven guarantees a bowl trip, even if it may be Shreveport.
The Tar Heels running the table will yield a better destination than that. In fact, if Carolina can go 6-0 over the second half of its season and then win a bowl game, wherever it is, the final record will be 8-5.
And what was it last season, 8-4? Keep the faith. Everything from the opposition, the weekly routine and winning will be easier to handle as we move forward.