“You earn the respect that we want. The only way to get it is to take it.” This is what Head Coach Larry Fedora told his team in the locker room immediately following Saturday’s victory at Miami. As of late, the Heels have done just that.

Heading into Saturday’s matchup fresh off of an impressive 3-game home stand, Carolina seemed poised to make a statement on the road against the Hurricanes. But while many (myself included) expected collective point totals between these two high octane offenses to approach the century mark, the game took on a different look.

In fact, the contest was eerily reminiscent of the Heels’ early season loss to Wake Forest: the offense looked brilliant in flashes but sputtered on several attempts to capitalize in the red zone. As was the case against the Deacons, this failure to convert while in scoring position kept Miami just within striking distance. And of course, it didn’t help that the Tar Heels played as if they had completely abandoned any attempt to embody the first term of Coach Fedora’s “Smart, Fast, Physical” mantra. Committing 15 penalties that amounted to 140 yards of backpedaling, the team did very little to help their own cause.

This being said, Fedora’s squad did manage to overcome their largely self-imposed obstacles with an exhibition of true grit. The battle was won in the trenches, where the push from Carolina’s experienced offensive line gave the electric Gio Bernard enough running room to eat up 177 yards from scrimmage. Despite a hot and cold performance, the Heels again found themselves on top at the end of four quarters.

So now Carolina football has something it hasn’t experienced much of in the last couple of years: momentum. Saturday’s victory marks the fourth in a row and the first road win of the season, putting us at the top of the ACC’s coastal division standings. And for the first time in my three years here at the University, I sense a genuine excitement around this team. I believe much of this energy is still held over from the “whiteout” game against Virginia Tech. Though the stadium wasn’t quite full, a great student turnout and enthusiasm for the novelty of a themed game brought a new kind of fervor to the crowd.

And whether you attribute the success of the team to the energy generated by a themed game or solely to each player’s hard work and execution, there is an unmistakable air about the program. The players have something that I can’t help but feel has been a bit lacking in recent years: ambition. In a year in which there will be no post-season, the Tar Heels have no rings to play for. There will be no trophy to hoist. There will be no bowl game. There will be no ACC Championship. There won’t even be the possibility of a division title. The Heels have only themselves to play for, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

Is it really so terrible that we have no hopes of a title? Would I be insane to suggest that perhaps this year’s squad is playing more cohesively as a unit because that unit is now the only thing that matters? We do, after all, have a title that no one can take away: we are Carolina. What better to play for than the name on the front of the jersey?

As Coach Fedora said following Saturday’s win, the only way to get people’s respect is to take it. It’s fine that pollsters are still wary of ranking us in the nation’s top 25. That should just serve as another chip on our shoulder.  The conference is not technically ours for the taking. But we should plan on having it anyway.