In the moments following Nick Weiler’s 54-yard dagger field goal to beat football powerhouse Florida State in Tallahassee, all seemed right for Carolina Football.
The Tar Heels had just won their second straight game in spectacular walk-off fashion, moving to 4-1 on the season. UNC was being led by talented quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who was on his way to being a top pick in the NFL Draft.
This level of success was following one of the best seasons in the history of Carolina Football history, a dominant 11-3 campaign in which the Tar Heels won the ACC Coastal divison and were a botched onside kick call away from an ACC Championship and a possible spot in the College Football Playoff.
Head Coach Larry Fedora’s job could not be more secure, and the future of football in Chapel Hill seemed extraordinarily bright.
Unfortunately for Fedora and the Tar Heels, it all went downhill from there.
A week after the thrilling victory over Florida State, Carolina was throttled at home by Virginia Tech 34-3, effectively ending any hopes they may of had at a College Football Playoff run.
The 2016 campaign eventually became a “what could have been” type of season, as the Tar Heels had arguably more talent than the record-setting 2015 team that went 11-3. The year went on to be highlighted by big wins (Florida State, Miami) and disappointing losses (N.C. State, Duke).
Although this UNC team did not live up to its full potential, 2016 was still a successful year for Carolina Football. The real problem is what has happened since then.
Fedora and his staff started 2017 off great, dominating the recruiting trail. The Tar Heels were putting together a special 2018 recruiting class, highlighted by talented 4-star recruits Jordyn Adams, Payton Wilson, and Tyler Shough.
While quarterback was a huge question mark following the departure of Trubisky, the 2017 Tar Heels were still expected to compete in the ACC, as they were returning a solid amount of starters on both sides of the ball.
As the season neared, quarterback became even more of a question; so much so that Fedora had not yet named a starter with week one just around the corner. This would still be the case on game day against California, and the Tar Heels ended up giving both graduate transfer Brandon Harris and redshirt freshman Chazz Surraut snaps against the Golden Bears.
Both signal callers had up and down debuts, and Carolina lost the game 35-30. This instability at the most important position on the field would go on to plague the Tar Heels for the rest of the season and was one of the biggest reasons they won just three games.
Another factor causing UNC’s dismal season that cannot be ignored was the unprecedented amount of injuries the Tar Heels sustained. By November, Carolina had lost a whopping 18 players to season-ending injuries, among them wide receiver Austin Prohel and linebacker Andre Smith, both 2018 NFL draftees.
This left the Tar Heels deprived of depth and talent, which hurt Carolina’s ability to finish games. In losses to Cal, Louisville, Duke, Miami, and N.C. State, the Tar Heels were competitive until the end, and led earlier in the game. However, when the fatigue set in, fans could do nothing but watch as the victories slipped right through UNC’s fingertips.
To make matters worse, Carolina lost to both N.C. State and Duke for the second straight year, something previously unheard of by UNC fans. Following the season-ending State loss, the Tar Heels had lost 12 of their last 13 games against Power 5 teams, dating back to 2016.
2017 became the first year since 2012 that Carolina did not qualify for a bowl game, and only the second time during Fedora’s tenure.
In the aftermath of the disastrous season, UNC’s 2018 recruiting class took a significant hit. Two of Fedora’s top three commits, Payton Wilson and Tyler Shough saw greener pastures elsewhere following the 3-9 campaign, and flipped to N.C. State and Oregon, respectively.
That left Jordyn Adams as the most prized signee in the 2018 class, ranked as the fourteenth best player in the country by 247 Sports. While the Blythewood, NC native has the potential to be a phenomenal player, he may never even suit up in Chapel Hill.
Adams is a dual-sport athlete, staring in both football and baseball at Green Hope High School. Because of his exceptional athleticism and talent on the diamond, Adams is likely to be selected in the first round of the MLB Draft.
If he is, it will be a tough opportunity to pass up. First round picks usually receive a signing bonus of at least $2 million as soon as they are selected. It would be hard for the average 18-year-old to ignore $2 million guaranteed dollars.
As of right now, Adams is enrolled at UNC to play both football and baseball. But, that could change after the draft next month. Depending on Adams’ decision, Carolina could possibly lose its three top recruits from a once promising, but still solid, class.
The 2018 season will be a crucial one for Larry Fedora and the future of Carolina Football. The program cannot afford to have another losing year.
The Tar Heels will not be returning many starters on either side of the ball from this past season, but sometimes it is a good thing to get a fresh start after winning just three games.
The quarterback position is still a question, and it will be critical for Fedora to establish a clear starter prior to week one, to avoid the same disastrous quarterback carousel that occurred last season.
The team should be much more healthy than it was last year, which will have a tremendous impact. Carolina is also bringing in a solid influx of youth talent, even if Adams decides to go pro.
UNC will have the talent to win 6-7 games, qualify for a bowl game, contend for the ACC Coastal Division, and possibly more in 2018. At the very least Carolina needs to have more success against in-state rivals N.C. State and Duke. It is now up to Fedora and his coaching staff to make that happen.
It should be known that I am a big Larry Fedora supporter. He has had a lot of success in Chapel Hill, and I believe he has the potential to have a lot more. However, if he does not have a bounce back season in 2018, it may be his last.