I was talking today with a fellow UNC alum about the upcoming season, and it got me thinking about how we as a fan base are feeling about the snafu that’s been this past year. Specifically, my friend mentioned how he was having trouble getting himself amped up for the start of what, on the surface, appears to be a lame-duck season for us Tar Heels. Let’s face it – this is not a good time to be a Carolina fan, as I wrote in my Firing Butch Davis piece. Once the novelty of football being back wore off (preseason NFL shitfest managed that pretty fast), my thoughts returned to Carolina as I thought, “This must be a tiny bit what it feels like to be a State fan.”
I know, I know, I JUST wrote an entire tome on how excited I am to put all this NCAA allegations shit behind us and play some damn football, and then two days after I posted the story the Miami scandal broke.
Anyway, consider this my attempt to convince myself that this year, Carolina actually has a chance to be, in the words of every coach’s pre-game presser, “a pretty darn good football team.” I’m largely going to stay away from media-guide stuff – breakdowns of offensive prowess, defensive returnees, and similar stats – partially because others have promised to deal with it and partially because I’m an intellectual laze. But by the end, I’ll probably be ready to storm the field, sweaty-Nevin-Shapiro style.
We’re about the same height. It’s cool.
1. Coaching continuity. Captain Obvious disclaimer: Interim head coach Everett Withers is a total unknown as far as head coaching goes. Holding the defensive coordinator spot for the two seasons prior to Butch Davis’ dismissal was his highest-held post to date. Thus, due to his inexperience Withers is highly unlikely to implement his own system or do much beyond tweaking the current Carolina game plan, in part because as a first-time head coach, he doesn’t really have his own system. What a pessimist sees as a weakness, I see as a strength: one of the things Carolina was finally getting right with Davis was a modicum of competent continuity (I say “competent” because previous coach John Bunting’s continuity was of the soul-crushing variety).
For all I know, Withers may turn out to be a spread offense maniac, but for now, he’s most likely to steer a straight course through Davis waters: pro-style offense and a conservative defense.
One more note about Withers: most of his coaching background is on the defensive side of the ball, specifically the secondary. It isn’t a coincidence that the interim head coach – chosen over other in-house candidates – is the most qualified to deal with a secondary that has to be the youngest and most inexperienced group on the team.
Okay, this is actually working. I’ve convinced myself that I actually like a coach who insisted on consistently rushing only three in 3rd-and-long situations last year – WAIT NO SHUT THE HELL UP!
2. A dirty not-so-secret about Butch Davis. No, this has nothing to do with the NCAA troubles. Any Cleveland Browns or Carolina fan will tell you that Davis is simply not a very good in-game coach. He rarely made halftime adjustments (at least, adjustments that were noticeable), had generally poor and sometimes horrendous clock management, and at times dialed up play calling that was questionable at best and straight-up stupid at worst.
The knock on Davis is that he isn’t a big X’s-and-O’s guy, and that he lacks a “feel of the game,” whatever that is.. But how is this any of this a positive for UNC? More important than Davis’ in-game acumen was his unquestioned talent on the recruiting pitch. Davis brought speed, talent, athleticism, and pure ability to Chapel Hill, and had a knack for doing it. The silver lining for Carolina, though he’s gone, is that his recruits are still here. For all the shit they went through last year, this is still a Butch Davis team. And that’s a pretty scary animal for the rest of the ACC. Which leads me to point #3…
3. Carolina has maybe the best “NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!!!!” play in recent memory. As a thought experiment, consider an alternate universe where Davis is still the head coach. What’s different from right now, besides an extraordinarily fractured and pissed-off fan base? Mostly nothing, to be honest with you. The talent is still there – Bryn Renner is totally green at quarterback, but that’s a subject for the media guide posts – and now-exonerated Carolina players are furious at having been held out of crucial games last year. They already would have had a chip on their shoulder, but probably would have been ranked in the top 25 anyway (this is obviously debatable).
Back in the real world, this same group of players – same talent level, same level of experience, same ginormous offensive line – now has a raison d’etre – the Nobody Believes In Us Card (see every Bill Simmons article written ever) that often comes from being unranked. If Withers has even an ounce of motivational speaking in him, here’s betting he can catch this spark and leverage top-25 talent with a bone to pick.
Never, ever underestimate the power of a legitimate Nobody Believes In Us card. There’s a reason every team, even the Auburns and Oregons and Floridas, tries to pull the tactic off. It works. Such is the power of the NBIU Card that the Seattle Seahawks, the shittiest team to ever back in to the NFL playoffs, used it to score 41 points to beat Super Bowl favorites New Orleans.
4. Players, staff, and fans all know this is probably the last chance to succeed before the wheels fall off. The Carolina football staff is not naïve. They know that UNC is likely to receive some pretty serious penalties from the NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing in October, despite the absolute joke the NCAA has become. A postseason ban is not out of the question, and a reduction in scholarships is a near-certainty.
Carolina will also be dealing with a coaching search (even if Withers succeeds, the athletic department will likely do a full evaluation at the end of the season) AND an athletic director search after Dick Baddour resigned in protest over Davis’ firing. That coaching uncertainty plus the NCAA penalties spells a looming recruiting disaster. A few recruits have jumped ship already (though it’s worth noting some have stuck to their commitments), and the number is likely to snowball as the season rolls on. Withers has a hugely difficult task in front of him as he tries to recruit with the interim label.
So what all this means: this is the last hurrah for a good long while. Cue Coach Herman Boone, cue Al Pacino against the Knights, cue Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights. So play with your hearts on the line, men, because we crawl for that inch!
Hmmm… combine the NOBODY BELIEVES IN US card with the THERE IS NO TOMORROW FOR YOU card from The Replacements, and I might actually have something here…
5. Withers kind of looks like Ray Rice, whom I love. Okay I know I’m reaching, BUT CUT ME SOME SLACK HERE. As a blatant homer for UNC, I have to believe this season has at least a kernel of success hidden in it somewhere, right?! Right?
Are you ready for some football?