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October 21, 2013

Nowhere to go but up?

Certainly the first half of the 2013 football season at North Carolina has been a total worst-case scenario in which the Tar Heels have lost each and every realistic opportunity to put together some momentum and get some key wins.

Certainly one can argue that the UNC schedule was front-loaded, with road games against the likes of South Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech along with last Thursday night's battle in Kenan Stadium with undefeated Miami, but Larry Fedora nor anyone else around Chapel Hill wants to use that as an excuse as to why the team currently finds itself at 1-5 heading into Saturday's 3:30 ACC tilt with Boston College in Chapel Hill.

Realistically a lot of people would have said before the season that Carolina would lose all four of those above-mentioned games, but it was there for UNC against both Georgia Tech and Miami, and dropping both of those games obviously re-directed what could have been a respectable start into anything but.

Of course, the one that still really stings, perhaps even more so than the Miami loss and one that has put a stigma on the entire autumn in Chapel Hill, was that 55-31 blowout that East Carolina handed to the Tar Heels.

That's the one that really hurts UNC's bowl prospects and makes the second half of the season a scenario where a lot of things have to go well just about every single weekend for Carolina to get a game in December.

The Tar Heels have to win at least five out of its final six contests to have a chance at any postseason bowl, no matter what rung it might be in the ACC's extensive bowl ladder.

On one hand, a victory over Boston College could hopefully kick-start a late season run that could still get the Tar Heels bowl-eligible again for the fifth time in six seasons, but the flip side is that if BC plays well---as they did quite a bit at times against both Clemson and Florida State and in its lone ACC win over Wake Forest---they could hand UNC another stinging loss that could make a bad situation creep into the realm of insufferable.

Looking purely at the stats, right now it's just a fact that nothing is a sure thing for the Tar Heels.

So anybody that just assumes Saturday is a sure thing for UNC to get back in the win column and get things on track, hold your horses.

At the moment UNC ranks 11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring offense (23.5 points per game), dead-last at 14th in scoring defense (30.7 points allowed per game), next-to-last in touchdowns (17), dead-last in total defense (456 yards allowed per game), dead-last in rushing yardage, averaging 100.8 yards per game, and dead-last in the conference in rushing yardage allowed at 203.0.

That total defense average of 456 yards per game is particularly depressing considering that the next-closest team to them in yardage allowed---Boston College---is a full 30.5 yards better, giving up an average of 425.5 per outing, and the Eagles have played both Florida State and Clemson.

And Boston College, who ranks 10th in the ACC in average rushing yards per game, averages better than 70 rushing yards per game than UNC does at 172.3.

BC is the tenth of ten ACC teams who have over 1,000 combined rushing yards (1,034 total). That's compared to just 605 rushing yards and only four rushing touchdowns in six games for UNC---both of those stats are again worst in the entire ACC.

One way to look at it is there's really nowhere for UNC to go but up in most of these statistical categories, since they simply can't get a whole lot worse.

The good thing is that Carolina is going to be fired up and playing again at home Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium against the Eagles, but the question is just how much support will they be getting this week against the Eagles compared to last Thursday night in 'Zero Dark Thursday' against Miami.

The fans and the players poured their hearts into that one. It was an evening that put to doubt any questions about whether the UNC football fans could host a a big-time atmosphere at night in the post-NCAA sanctions era.

And not coming away with another memorable triumph over another unbeaten, Top 10 Miami squad certainly put a damper on what was a festive evening.

But the Tar Heel players---and UNC fans alike---simply have no choice right now but to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and stand up ready to fight another day.

It's a 12-round fight, and though UNC has gotten knocked out its ass five times already, there's six more rounds---six more chances to do some knocking out of their own.

And realistically, the fight might be a little bit more winnable in those final six rounds.

After opening the first half against six schools with a combined record right now of 29-12, the rest of the second half slate is much easier for North Carolina against six teams in BC, N.C. State, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Old Dominion, and Duke.

Those teams have a combined 21-18 record, and only Duke and Pitt have a winning record, Duke at 5-2 and Pitt at 4-3.

Between them, UNC's last five ACC opponents this season are a collective 4-12 against league opponents, so certainly the potential is there for North Carolina to play and beat teams in games that a lot of people will think they should have a decent chance of winning.

At this point, it would appear that the only thing separating UNC from the prospect of a nice re-direct to finish out the season as winners or losers is their own motivation and their ability to focus in on its weekly opponent, which they clearly didn't do against ECU.

And for the UNC coaches, it's a chance to atone for several crucial missed chances earlier in the season---not to mention all the moments of their team being undisciplined and chaotic---by executing better and getting things going when they're close to the end zone.

Everyone talks about the third down play that cost UNC a potential huge first down late in the loss to Miami, but an equally devastating play was the chop block penalty inside the Miami 5-yard line earlier in the game that forced Carolina to kick a field goal instead of a touchdown and could have been the difference in possible overtime against the 'Canes.

Despite all his successes at Southern Miss, Fedora's Golden Eagles squads went 0-3 against Alabama-Birmingham three straight seasons (2009 to 2011) in seasons where UAB went a combined 12-24.

So there's at least some evidence in Fedora's recent past where his teams have struggled to get up for certain opponents and certain schemes.

That was definitely the case last fall when an 8-4 UNC squad that beat Virginia Tech and Miami lost to Duke and Wake Forest, albeit without Giovani Bernard in the setback in Winston-Salem to the Demon Deacons.

UNC losses in the coming weeks to teams such as Boston College, N.C. State, Virginia, or Duke have the potential to make things really fall apart and have things unravel the way of many, many college football teams over the years with the talent to win but without the chemistry and focus to get it done who wind up sitting at home during the Holidays.

Things are truly at a crossroads right now with the 2013 Tar Heels on the gridiron, and it really has little to do with the fact that it's the seventh game and official start to the second half of the regular season.

Facing a winnable schedule, UNC's biggest enemy may very well be themselves from here on out.

They have to come to practice every single day knowing what they're practicing for---themselves, their teammates, and the possibility of some late-season glory---and keep their eyes focused on individual victory each and every week while not looking ahead.

If they do that, there's still a chance for a rough season in Chapel Hill to be salvaged into something that people can be a little proud of.

But if they don't, there could be some more embarrassing losses ahead. Losses that can make a nightmare of a football season in Chapel Hill an even bigger disaster that will be even harder to salvage any honor from.

There was honor to be salvaged against Miami. And this team can get plenty more starting with Boston College.

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