The bottom was not really rock bottom, not when you saw the way North Carolina kept fighting against unbeaten Miami on a Thursday night in Chapel Hill.
Despite that close loss, you never got the sense that the Tar Heels had given up on their season, despite a 1-5 record, bowl hopes on life support and chatter that the Tar Heels had been the most disappointing team in the league.
Coach Larry Fedora told reporters afterward, “We’re going to find a way to win football games. That’s going to happen.”
Even still, making a bowl game seemed improbable, if not impossible.
Yet here the Tar Heels stand, riding a four-game winning streak, one victory away from bowl eligibility. They can get there against Old Dominion on Saturday, to complete the biggest in-season turnaround of 2013. Since the regular-season expanded to 12 games in 2006, only five teams that began the season 1-5 went on to make a bowl game. Only one – Rutgers in 2008 – came from a power conference.
“We just had to stay with a positive attitude, and positive behavior,” quarterback Marquise Williams said in a recent phone interview. “That’s one thing Coach Fedora always preaches to us. Any other team probably would have thrown in the towel and been OK with going whatever the record is, but we knew we had to do something to change things around and get us back rolling. That wasn’t the football team we wanted to be. We wanted to be better than that.”
Fedora credits leadership from his coaching staff and seniors to keeping the team together after such a poor start. The low point came Sept. 28, a 55-31 thrashing at home by East Carolina, a game in which players admitted they overlooked their opponent.
Two more loses followed, but there were signs of life. The defense started playing better, giving up fewer big plays. Young players like Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Khris Francis started contributing. Eric Ebron has developed into one of the best tight ends in the country, and already owns the single-season school record for receptions by a tight end.
And Williams showed his worth after starting for an injured Renner in a loss to Virginia Tech.
He and Renner both played until Renner was lost for the season following the NC State game. North Carolina has rolled on to two straight wins without its senior leader. Keep in mind, Williams was not even around the team in the spring because he was on academic suspension.
Now, Williams is a big reason why the Tar Heels have an opportunity to make their first postseason appearance since 2011 after being banned from postseason play in 2012.
“Going through that, it was a huge wake-up call,” Williams said. “I didn’t take the game seriously, and didn’t focus on what I needed to do. Adversity is going to hit in your life, and that made me grow up, and become a better person and more mature person, to respect things, to appreciate things. To show people it’s not about me, it’s about everyone else. I’ve been focusing on a lot of people other than myself. I just had to grow up and be more mature about the things I was doing.”
He’s not the only one who has grown up. Of North Carolina’s 36 touchdowns this season, 28 have been scored by either freshmen or sophomores. Switzer already has the single-season school record with three punt return touchdowns, and he needs one more to tie the ACC record.
Defensively, North Carolina is only allowing 331 yards per game and 17.5 points per game during this four-game winning streak. Compare that to 455.9 yards per game and 30.7 points per game during the 1-5 start.
Now granted, the schedule has gotten a lot easier in the back end. According to USA Today’s Sagarin rankings, North Carolina had the fourth-most difficult schedule in the country through its first six games. In the last four, the Tar Heels have faced just one team with a winning record.
Nonetheless, it takes a team playing together to win games, no matter the strength of the opponent. North Carolina stayed true to itself, and now it’s on the verge of getting back to the postseason.
“The entire team has to buy into it,” Fedora said. “For us, it’s earlier in the year so you could go a lot of different ways. That’s why I give credit to the staff and those seniors and the leaders on this football team, how they kept everybody together.”