North Carolina

How UNC football reached this point of futility

North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt (12) prepares to pass during the second half of Notre Dame's 33-10 victory over UNC at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.
North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt (12) prepares to pass during the second half of Notre Dame's 33-10 victory over UNC at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

The one-year anniversary of North Carolina’s most recent victory against a major-conference opponent came and went on Sunday, during the Tar Heels’ long-awaited off weekend in their injury-plagued, tortured season. Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, found himself with plenty to do.

He said earlier this week that he spent part of the weekend trimming the shrubs. He also “fixed the toilet,” he said, and that was among the five or six things on his around-the-house to-do list while the Tar Heels didn’t play.

One thing Fedora did not do is think about his team’s long, troubling losing streak against major-conference opponents. Since UNC defeated Georgia Tech on Nov. 5, 2016, it has lost 11 consecutive games against teams from a power conference.

“Haven’t thought about it until you brought it up,” Fedora said. “So, thanks. Yeah (there’s) nothing good about it, but it is what it is. Nothing’s going to change. We’re going to continue to do the things that we’re doing that we need to do to get better as a football team and hopefully win some football games.”

The Tar Heels’ 11-game losing streak against major-conference teams includes two defeats against Duke, two defeats against Pac-12 Conference opponents (Stanford and California) and seven other defeats against ACC opponents. And now, with a game on Thursday night at Pittsburgh, comes an opportunity for UNC to end its misery.

When the Tar Heels last defeated a major-conference team, they were 7-2 overall, and 5-1 in the ACC. They were competing, still, for a second consecutive Coastal Division championship. They had positioned themselves to appear in an upper-tier bowl game.

Since then, they’ve played nearly a season’s worth of games against major-conference competition, and they’re 0-11 in those games. A defeat on Thursday night at Pitt, and later this month at N.C. State, would ensure UNC’s losing streak in such games stretches into 2018.

There is urgency, then, in ending the futility now. A victory wouldn’t change much about the dynamic of UNC’s season, which weeks ago reached lost-cause status. A victory would, however, bring about some positivity for a program desperately in need of it.

“Our goals were out the window a while ago,” Fedora said recently, when asked if he’s continued to discuss season goals with his team. “So really, it’s been more about what kind of legacy do you want to leave? How do you want to finish in November?”

Last November, in late 2016, represented the beginning of UNC’s downward slide. After the victory against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels surrendered a second-half lead during a Thursday night defeat at Duke, and then lost against N.C. State in the regular-season finale.

UNC’s football fortunes have only grown worse. And yet how did the Tar Heels go from modest disappointment, at the end of last season, to complete disarray, all in less than a calendar year? Injuries are a large part of the answer, but they are but one of several primary reasons:

1. Attrition limited the potential in the first place.

Before the start of the season UNC embraced Michael Jordan’s well-publicized verbal gaffe to such a degree that the university put it atop the tunnel the players run through at Kenan Stadium: “the ceiling is the roof.” Even if the Tar Heels had remained healthy, however, their ceiling was never going to rise to roof-high levels.

Indeed, this was always going to be something of a rebuilding year. UNC finished the 2016 season 8-5, and that was with the benefit of a core of skill players who, combined, could in theory form the nucleus of a talented, albeit young, NFL offense.

Those players included Mitch Trubisky, the quarterback whom the Chicago Bears selected with the second overall pick of the NFL draft, and receivers Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard, and running back Eljiah Hood. All but Howard were drafted.

The Tar Heels a season ago generated 5,707 yards of total offense. Players who accounted for a little more than 98 percent of that production did not return. UNC before this season faced difficult questions at every position group, and that was before an unprecedented run of injuries depleted depth even more.

And so while the words on the tunnel proclaim that “the ceiling is the roof,” the ceiling, this season, was considerably lower. And then, once the games began, it continued to drop.

2. Injuries ruined whatever chances the Tar Heels might have had.

Consider, for a moment, the possibility of an alternative universe in which UNC had remained healthy. In this alternative universe, the offensive line becomes a cohesive unit and, eventually, a strength instead of a liability.

The quarterbacks, either Brandon Harris or Chazz Surratt, then actually have time to set themselves and operate the offense. And, most important, they have some proven options at receiver. And so the offense produces at a reasonable rate, taking pressure off of the defense – a defense that, by the way, maintains the services of middle linebacker Andre Smith for more than a game and a half.

In this alternative universe, the Tar Heels have a chance to finish with a decent season – six or seven victories, perhaps, and bowl eligibility. In reality, though, UNC never had a chance. Not with a rash of injuries that has had Fedora questioning everything from his strength and conditioning program to whether the team’s new Jordan Brand gear is to blame for the injury problems.

UNC’s injury problems long ago reached a point of absurdity. Now, when the team’s injury report comes out and it doesn’t include another player who has been lost for the season, it’s news. When the Tar Heels play on Thursday night, they’ll do so without 18 players who have been lost for the season due to injury.

At least eight of those players, including Smith, the middle linebacker, and Austin Proehl, the leading returning receiver from last season, would be starting for UNC right now if they were healthy. The injury woes have had the obvious effect of forcing UNC to rely on those who aren’t ready to contribute in a significant way.

Players who would have served as backups are instead starting. And others who would have rarely played, if ever, are instead backups who need to contribute if for no other reason than UNC doesn’t have anyone else.

3. Failures in recruiting have created a lack of depth and, arguably, talent.

After a debilitating 59-7 defeat at Virginia Tech, a loss that for one of the few times this season called into question the Tar Heels’ effort, Fedora defended his team’s talent level. Yes, he said then, the team is talented enough to compete – even with all of the injuries.

With the exception of that game, at least, Fedora has usually been proven correct. UNC was competitive in defeats against Cal, Louisville, Duke and Miami. Still, the Tar Heels have fought second-half fatigue, and the lack of depth in the junior and senior classes, especially, is concerning.

The Tar Heels’ 2014 recruiting class has now been in the program for four seasons. Its members who did not sit out for a reason are now seniors. UNC’s juniors who have not sat out for a season, meanwhile, entered school the next year, in 2015. Those two classes should be the backbone of the team and, in some ways, they are. But they’ve also reflective of the team’s current state.

The 2014 class, for instance, produced a handful of regular starters but few standouts. One of them was Hood, who left school after last season, and another, M.J. Stewart, is a senior cornerback. Cayson Collins has been a reliable starter at linebacker, and Bentley Spain, who has also fought injuries, has been a mainstay at left tackle.

The rest of the class features at least as many misses as those who have fulfilled their potential. The 2015 class, meanwhile, has underachieved to this point. The best offensive skill player in that class, running back Ty’Son Williams, transferred, leaving UNC thin at that position. Two two best offensive linemen prospects in that class, Tommy Hatton and William Sweet, are both out for the season with injuries.

The best defensive prospect in that class, Jalen Dalton, has in moments provided glimpses of his considerable potential, while also displaying a troubling knack for committing foolish penalties. Another highly-regarded defensive prospect in the class of 2015 was Mike Hughes, a safety the university dismissed because of a disciplinary reasons.

Fedora’s first two recruiting classes at UNC set a foundation for the record-setting offenses that flourished in 2015 and 2016. To avoid a downturn after the departure of those older players, he needed the 2014 and ’15 classes to be filled with more hits than misses. It has not happened that way and that, along with the attrition and the injuries, explains how UNC went from where it was to where it is.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

UNC at Pittsburgh

When: 7:30 p.m.

Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh