There are some years for a football team where rock bottom might seem to be a few flights up.
Notre Dame went through it in 2016 with a 4-8 campaign, and it seems North Carolina is experiencing it in 2017.
For starters, dating back to last season, North Carolina has lost four straight in Kenan Stadium (opened in 1927), which often has been cited with Army West Point, Washington and the Rose Bowl as one of the most scenic venues in the country to watch a college football game.
The view for Tar Heels fans hasn’t been pretty of late, beginning with the 28-21 loss to a 5-6 North Carolina State squad in the 2016 home finale.
This year, they opened 0-3 at home with setbacks to California (35-30), Louisville (47-35) and Duke (27-17).
Sound familiar? Last year Notre Dame started 1-3 as well in September — capped by a home loss to Duke.
Whereas Notre Dame did improve to 2-3, North Carolina dropped to 1-4 after a 33-7 defeat last week at Georgia Tech.
Like Notre Dame in 2016 after losing a lot of star power from the previous year’s team — including first-round selections Will Fuller and Ronnie Stanley, plus Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith and fellow second-round choice Nick Martin — the Tar Heels lost two of their playmakers early to the draft, including No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky at quarterback and running back Elijah Hood, never mind electric receiver/return man Ryan Switzer.
However, the attrition has been compounded by the subtraction of 13 players for the season already because of injuries. In the Sept. 23 setback to Duke alone, the Tar Heels lost star senior receiver Austin Proehl; versatile starting senior defensive end Tyler Powell, who also could line up on the inside; starting sophomore tight end Carl Tucker; and freshman wide receiver Rontavious “Toe” Groves, whose first career start came against the Blue Devils.
Previously announced as out for the year were standout linebacker Andre Smith, starting offensive tackle William Sweet and a host of others mostly along the two deep: wide receiver Thomas Jackson, tailback Antwuan Branch, walk-on safety Jesse Cuccia, offensive lineman Luke Elder, safety D.J. Ford, walk-on tailback Jacob Schmidt and tight end Noah Turner.
No matter how long one has watched football, losing 13 players to season-ending injuries after only four games is astounding.
• Like Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, head coach Larry Fedora has had a solid career at North Carolina. He entered 2017 with a five-year record of 40-25, highlighted by an 11-3 mark and No. 15 final Associated Press ranking in 2015. However, 2017 has been “one of those years” where the bleeding can’t seem to stop, just like it didn’t for Kelly throughout 2016.
• Defense was a huge problem area for Kelly from 2014-16, and has been throughout Fedora’s tenure. This past February, 2015-16 defensive coordinator Gene Chizik — head coach of the 2010 national champion Auburn Tigers — left his post to “spend more time with family.” Promoted to coordinator was John Papuchis, with Mike Ekeler hired from North Texas to instruct the linebackers.
• Similar to the Irish in 2016 (and the start of 2017), the Tar Heels have lost five straight one-possession games since last November.
Remember how often it’s been pointed out that Notre Dame lost five games last season despite holding a lead in the fourth quarter? Kelly echoed a similar thought about the Tar Heels during his Tuesday press conference at Notre Dame while attempting to be complimentary.
“If one would look at their record, you may get the similar sense that it’s a 1-4 football team, and it is,” Kelly said. “But four of the five games they’ve had a lead going into the fourth quarter.”
That is accurate, including their 53-23 win over Old Dominion (sort of like 2016 Notre Dame’s 39-10 win in game two over Nevada). Entering the fourth quarter the Tar Heels also led Cal 24-21, Louisville 28-27 and Duke 17-13 before getting outscored 48-13 by the trio in the final 15 minutes.
Even in North Carolina’s game at Georgia Tech last week, Kelly was impressed with the fight displayed by the Tar Heels, trailing only 10-0 at halftime, before getting outscored 23-7 in the second half.
“They are playing hard and physical,” Kelly said. “Coach Fedora has got this football team. … The morale is good. They are playing hard. So we’re going to have a great challenge on our hands.
“Coach Fedora has done a great job of keeping this team mentally locked in regardless of what group he puts out there week in and week out. It’s been very, very impressive.”
For Notre Dame, the foremost objective is to stay locked in to their own standards — the way they did against an inferior Miami (Ohio) team last week.
“I told our team yesterday it was a satisfying win because ... they knew that going in that physically they had an opponent that didn’t have the same tools, and they did not let that affect the way they prepared all week and how they played the game,” Kelly said. “It showed a great deal of maturity, a great deal of, in my estimation … accountability to a standard and the way that we want to play each and every week.”
The same will be needed in Chapel Hill.