North Carolina football: Loss to Georgia Tech was disastrous, but goals still ahead for Tar Heels
Whatever slim hopes North Carolina had of making its 1st appearance in the College Football Playoff have been extinguished. Despite leading 17-0 with 3 minutes to go before halftime Saturday, the 13th-ranked Tar Heels saw their perfect ACC record and 6-game winning streak go up in flames, as Georgia Tech mounted a charge and secured a 21-17 upset win at Kenan Stadium.
“Very disappointing for us. Uncharacteristically, we really played poorly on offense. We dropped passes, we had 6 sacks, we were 4-of-14 on 3rd downs, we were 2-of-4 on 4th downs, which we’ve been so good at, and we only scored twice of the 5 times in the red zone and left a lot of points on the board,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said.
Disappointing is, quite frankly, putting it mildly for the Tar Heels. Throughout the season, the Tar Heels — particularly quarterback Drake Maye and his high-octane offense — have made the plays when they needed to in key spots, winning nail-biters against Appalachian State, Georgia State, Miami, Duke, Virginia and Wake Forest. Whether Brown’s bunch was going to be able to ride that close-game proficiency into a 12-1 campaign, an ACC title and a fighting shot at the playoffs was to be determined, but a 4-6 Yellow Jackets program, led by interim coach Brent Key and backup quarterback Zach Gibson, was not supposed to be the group to end the magic.
Despite all that, a deep breath is needed in Chapel Hill. Multiple goals still are in play for North Carolina, starting with the regular-season finale against NC State. The Wolfpack will enter Black Friday a loser of 2 straight and dealing with uncertainty at quarterback, but talent still is littered up and down that roster. Avenging last year’s epic collapse in Raleigh, which featured the Tar Heels giving up a 30-21 lead with less than 2 minutes remaining, will require North Carolina to be locked in.
Next, there is the ACC title game Dec. 3. When Brown was brought back to Chapel Hill during November 2018, North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham said, “He knows how to win championships.” And it is true that during his 15-year tenure at Texas, Brown led the Longhorns to 2 Big 12 titles and an undefeated, national-title winning season in 2005.
But in 13 years at North Carolina (10 during his 1st stint and the 3 before this season), Brown is yet to win the ACC, finishing 2nd in 1993, 1996 and 1997. Ninth-ranked Clemson, while 10-1 and sporting wins against Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State and Louisville, is far from invincible. The Tigers rank 70th nationally in passing offense, which should make the job of the Tar Heels’ 116th-ranked passing defense a little easier.
Brown has impressively rebuilt the Tar Heels via recruiting prowess, smart assistant coaching hires and identifying 2 stellar quarterbacks in Maye and former starter Sam Howell. Now is the time for that to culminate in the program’s 1st ACC title since 1980.
Then, there is Maye. For the 1st time all season, the redshirt freshman failed to toss a touchdown pass, and he was hounded all night by the Georgia Tech pass rush. Only during the Tar Heels’ 45-32 September loss to Notre Dame did Maye have a worse completion percentage than Saturday’s 53.3% mark, and even on that night, the Huntersville , N.C., native threw for a whopping 5 touchdowns. It was a rough night in a debut season that has been littered with sensational nights. Maye’s 3rd-quarter interception, as the Tar Heels were driving while ahead 17-14, was an ugly decision the quarterback telegraphed from the moment the ball was snapped, and it summed up the evening.
But Maye’s incredible season did not simply evaporate Saturday. He still is 3rd nationally in passing touchdowns (behind Houston’s Clayton Tune and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud) and passing yards (behind Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Western Kentucky’s Austin Reed), with 34 and 3,614, respectively. Kenny Pickett received an invite to the Heisman Trophy ceremony despite 2 losses last year, and if Maye (currently 8th in Heisman odds, according to FanDuel Sportsbook) gets back on track the next 2 weeks and leads North Carolina to a conference championship, he too could receive an invite to New York City.
So yes, Saturday was a heartbreaker for the Tar Heels and likely will be reflected in a steep drop in Tuesday’s playoff committee rankings. But a poor 18 minutes of football does not take away from the fact that, in Year 4our under Brown and Year 1 with Maye as the starter, North Carolina still has 3 major goals in front of it — a sweep over its in-state rivals, an ACC title and Maye’s quest for postseason honors.
The Tar Heels will not be in the playoffs. But there still is much to play for in Chapel Hill.