Record: 7-5, 3-5 ACC
Overview: For the second straight season, the Tar Heels had the rug yanked from under them before the season even began. In 2010, it was the NCAA investigation. This year, it was the firing of former coach Butch Davis just days before summer practices began. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers was named the interim head coach and left to pick up the pieces. A 5-1 start not only had UNC in the ACC race, but it also had Withers looking good as a potential permanent replacement for Davis.
The 5-1 start, though, was deceiving. UNC lost to the only ranked team it played (Georgia Tech), and was sitting pretty after wins against unheralded opponents. Once the competition increased, North Carolina quickly played its way out of the ACC race with four losses in a span of five weeks. It began with the loss to Miami, but none was worse than the 13-0 loss to NC State, the fifth straight season UNC had lost to rival coach Tom O’Brien. Withers didn’t help the situation by calling out NC State’s academics in the week leading up to the game – not a smart move for a program under the NCAA’s microscope for academic misconduct.
Despite the downward slide in the second half of the season, UNC reached bowl eligibility with its win over Wake Forest on Oct. 29 and still has a chance to match the eight-win maximum of Davis. There were also plenty of standout individual performers for UNC this year, as Giovani Bernard was one of the top rookie running backs in the country, receiver Dwight Jones was one of the best in the ACC, and UNC again had a defense comprised of some NFL-bound talent. UNC won six home games for the first time since 1993, and put together a respectable season despite the firing of their head coach before the season began.
Offensive MVP: Giovani Bernard. He led North Carolina in rushing this year with 1,222 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He ranks third in the ACC in rushing and has more rushing yards than any other freshman nationally. With still one game remaining, his yardage total is the third-best by an ACC freshman. Earlier this year, he became the first Tar Heel football player since 1984 to record five consecutive games with 100 or more yards in rushing and has topped the 100-yard mark seven times this year.
Defensive MVP: Zach Brown. He finished the regular season with a team-best 91 tackles, including 11.5 tackles for losses and 5.5 sacks. He also had two interceptions, broke up four passes and tied Quinton Coples with three forced fumbles.
Turning point: The 30-24 loss to Miami. This was the reality check of the season. Miami jumped out to a 24-point lead, and it was too much for the Tar Heels to overcome. So was the loss, as they followed it with another the next week against Clemson. The Miami game set the tone for the second half of the season.
What’s next: UNC will face Missouri in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl in what will be Withers’ last game as the head coach. It will be UNC’s fourth straight bowl game, the school’s longest streak since going to seven straight from 1992-98. How UNC fares will depend in part upon how excited the players are to be in Shreveport, La., knowing they are about to have another head coaching change. The program is also still waiting to hear if the NCAA has any further sanctions to hand out.