To truly take stock of North Carolina's football program, it’s necessary to look back at where the Tar Heels stood one year ago.
Look past December and the back-to-back losses and embarrassing blowout to undermanned Baylor to an even more disconcerting time for the Tar Heels. Last January, they were at a crossroads, sitting in a team meeting expressing their grievances with teammates and coaches after a 6-7 season.
“We talked about ways that we were going to make sure that those things didn't happen [in 2015],” head coach Larry Fedora said when asked about the meeting.
The result this season was a unified North Carolina roster, free of the sniping between offense and defense, player and coach. North Carolina rallied following a season-opening loss to win 11 straight and a division title. It finished No. 15 in the AP poll, its highest final ranking since 1997.
The only controversy surrounding the team in 2015 was whether its College Football Playoff ranking accurately reflected its strength. The Tar Heels struggled to convince the selection committee it was a playoff contender, inching up the ranking and leaving doubt as to whether a conference championship would be enough to warrant a final four invite.
Ultimately, the argument proved moot as Clemson outclassed the Tar Heels for much of the ACC championship game before a late rally was spoiled, in part by a questionable penalty on an onside kick. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, Baylor, despite missing many of its best players, set a bowl rushing record with 645 yards.
While the defense showed its warts late, there was clear progress in defensive coordinator Gene Chizik's first season. The defense allowed two touchdowns fewer per game, and they jumped 55 positions in the defensive efficiency rankings. The secondary was among the conference’s better defensive backfields, which helped the defense improve from 127th in plays of 20 yards or more to 68th. The poor postseason outings, which could be a better reflection of the defense, skew those numbers quite a bit from their regular-season standing, too.
Nearly two decades passed since North Carolina last won even nine games, so the question lingering into the offseason is whether the 11-3 season is merely an outlier. UNC has consistently underwhelmed since Mack Brown left following the 1997 season, although NCAA issues from the previous staff plagued the first few years of Fedora’s tenure.
Yet, outside of those departures, the Tar Heels remain largely intact. Presumed starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky routinely shined in limited opportunities the last two seasons, and he’s been in Fedora’s system since January 2013. Elijah Hood, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer return to provide options for Trubisky, and the defense should continue ascending under Chizik.
Most important, Fedora signed an extension in December while his name was rumored for other jobs.
Despite a lackluster finish, the 2015 season is being looked at as a turning point for the North Carolina program. Now, will the program often referred to as a “sleeping giant” continue reaching new heights?