Friedlander: Can UNC handle the pressure in its new role as the Coastal Division frontrunner?
North Carolina won last week. And it didn’t even play.
Thanks to an open date in the schedule, the Tar Heels got to sit at home and watch their lead in the ACC Coastal Division increase as each of their closest pursuers went down to defeat.
Coach Mack Brown admits that, much to his wife’s chagrin, he barely got off his couch Saturday.
UNC now has at least a 2-game lead on everyone in the division and can tighten its grip on a possible title by beating struggling Pittsburgh at home Saturday.
It’s an advantageous situation, to be sure. But so was having a 1st Class stateroom on the Titanic.
And we know how that turned out.
As was the case with the great ship, there still are plenty of icebergs to try to avoid between now and December before the Tar Heels can cruise into Charlotte, N.C., for an ACC Championship Game date with presumptive Atlantic winner Clemson.
Among the most dangerous potential stumbling blocks is 1 that doesn’t appear on the remaining schedule.
Saturday’s game against the Panthers will be UNC’s 1st this year as a ranked team. It entered the national polls following its win at Duke 2 weeks ago and moved up a spot to No. 21 while idle.
After going about their business to this point in the season unburdened by the weight of expectations and national attention, the dynamic suddenly has changed.
At 6-1 (3-0 ACC) the Tar Heels no longer are a plucky underdog trying to play their way into division championship contention. They’re now the heavy favorite to win it.
It’s similar to the role with which they began the season a year ago.
One they handled with the uneasiness of a receiver hearing the footsteps of an onrushing linebacker as he thinks about going up for a pass across the middle.
Since most of the current players also were members of that disappointing 2021 team, which finished 6-7 after being ranked among the top 10 and picked as the preseason favorite to win the Coastal, the challenge now is to learn from the experience and not get distracted by the praise, the polls or their promising possibilities.
It won’t be easy, especially after a full week to sit back and listen to it all.
“Why talk about the Coastal until you win it?” Brown said Monday, adding that the only rankings that matter are those that come out at the end of the season. “You’ve got to earn your right and we’ve got a 5-game season. We’ve got a very difficult 5 games. We shouldn’t be thinking about anything but Pitt.”
#UNC Coach Mack Brown held his weekly presser Monday in advance of Saturday's home contest versus #Pitt to discuss his team & field a variety of questions. Our report >>> https://t.co/fRgZVmLx6o #GDTBATH #GoHeels #NorthCarolina
— Tar Heel Illustrated (@HeelIllustrated) October 24, 2022
It would be easy to dismiss Brown’s warning as your typical “we’ve got to take ‘em 1 game at a time” coachspeak. But in the case of his Tar Heels, there’s validity to his warning.
They aren’t nearly as dominant as their impressive record and perch atop the division standings would suggest.
In fact, their margin for error has been as paper thin as the sliver of grass that separated Antoine Greene’s foot from the out-of-bounds line on his winning catch with 16 seconds left at Duke.
Four of UNC’s 6 wins have come by a single possession with 3 of them decided by a field goal or less. That includes a 63-61 escape Sept. 3 at Appalachian State.
With games against high-scoring Wake Forest and fellow in-state rival NC State still on the upcoming schedule, nothing is guaranteed. That includes even in the other matchups against Coastal Division bottom-feeders Virginia and Georgia Tech.
Especially with a defense that while improved since the start of the season, still ranks dead last in the ACC in every statistical category and will have its hands full Saturday trying to stop Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda – the league’s leading rusher.
“What we talked about in the spring is that you’ve got to practice to a standard of excellence and play to a standard of excellence every week,” Brown said of his players. “I’ve told them, some teams don’t play well, some teams turn the ball over … just don’t sit here and say ‘we’re better than this team.’ It doesn’t matter. It’s who’s best that day and it’s more that way now than I’ve ever seen.”
As much as parity enters into the equation in the ACC Coastal, the Tar Heels stand a better chance at being the best team on the field on any given day as long as Drake Maye is running their offense.
It’s not even that the redshirt freshman quarterback is putting up Heisman-worthy numbers. He leads the ACC in passing yards per game (326.1), completion percentage (70.1), touchdowns (24) and efficiency rating (184.8) and ranks among the top 10 nationally in all but completion percentage.
Maye also has shown a knack for making big plays when his team needs them most, as he did in driving UNC the length of the field during the final 2 minutes for the winning score against the rival Blue Devils.
But the job still is only half finished, and the Tar Heels aren’t going to get any more breaks from the schedule. From here on out, they’re going to have to earn the rest of their wins on the field, not watching from their couch.