North Carolina suffered its second straight narrow defeat in the Meineke Car Care Bowl this past weekend and obviously it was a bitter pill to swallow for everyone within the program---particularly those seniors who were unable to cap their Tar Heel careers with a victory.
However, UNC head coach Butch Davis, in answering the final question in his post-game interview immediately following the 19-17 loss to Pittsburgh, made it clear that in his mind the loss was already over and next season is already here.
"We're already over it. We're already over it. It's 2010 as far as I'm concerned," said Davis. "We've already talked about the direction this program is headed, and the people that are going to be here to help this program continue to grow in the right direction."
Davis sent a message to the players with remaining eligibility that the bar is being raised on the gridiron in Chapel Hill in 2010, and that they better be ready for an exciting ride.
"(Coach Davis told us after the game) that it's going to be a lot better coaching job and a lot better playing (next season), so pretty much (he said), 'You better get ready, because it's going to be real exciting,'" said cornerback Kendric Burney.
"It's hard to say goodbye to the seniors, but the underclassmen, we've played our hearts out," said first-team All-ACC safety Deunta Williams, one of the new members of the Tar Heel senior class. "I feel like the only thing we can do is look forward to the future. You've got to see the positive in that."
The calendar year turns over to 2010 on Friday, and while the actual football season won't start until the epic season opener in the Georgia Dome Labor Day weekend against LSU, the team gets back to work in earnest when classes resume in early January.
The team will get right into offseason conditioning workouts and start getting ready for spring football after they return to Chapel Hill following a brief Holiday break from school and classes.
"This offseason it's going to be a push for us. I'm just going to take about a week off, and then I'm back in," said wide receiver Greg Little. ""It's really frustrating but I try to not look in the past. I feel like we're just scratching the surface of a team that can win 11 and 12 games. It's a frustrating thing but we just have to go and finish better."
"We're going to have to take a little bit of time off, but when we get back into school we're going to get right back after it," said quarterback T.J. Yates, now a fifth-year senior. "Spring ball jumps up on you pretty quick. We're just going to get over this game and start looking forward to next year."
"When we get back to Chapel Hill we're going to start working out and get ready for next season," said linebacker Quan Sturdivant, also a new senior. "Spring ball is going to be before we know it, and then before we know it we're going to be up against LSU. Everybody has been in the program for four years, so I think next year should be our time to make some noise."
A difficult loss is never an ideal way to head into an offseason, but the Tar Heels are making the most of the situation knowing that they played a tough team that nearly reached the BCS---a great test for a team that themselves are looking to play in championship games in the coming years.
"It's no such thing as a moral victory in my book," said Little, who scored both of UNC's touchdowns against Pitt. "If I hang onto that deep ball down the sideline maybe there's a different outcome, but I'm never going to accept a moral victory. That's never acceptable in my book."
"Our team played hard against a ranked opponent and some guys that were expected to win the game," Little added. "We came out and gave them a hard fight. It kills me not to send these seniors off right. I left some plays out there."
"Definitely this game, it's just more of a motivation to become better and better. Everything that we've gone through this last month is one more stepping stone towards the right direction," said offensive lineman Alan Pelc. "This spring we're going to look to become better, more disciplined, and more physical, (have a) better running game and hopefully we'll carry that into next season."
Pelc, who played center during the Meineke Bowl, could spend time at that position during the spring in addition to the guard position that he's played for most of his UNC career so far.
"It really doesn't matter where I play as long as I'm playing. I'm happy as long as I'm contributing. I just want to do the best for the team that I can," Pelc said.
For the entire Tar Heel offense, this offseason---and particularly the weeks leading into spring football---are a golden opportunity to set a new tone for vast improvement to match the play of the UNC defense, which ranked first in the Atlantic Coast Conference in most statistical categories this fall and was the primary reason the team went bowling for the second straight year.
"The defense is ranked nationally, and I think we (the offense) want to match that intensity, and I feel that will better us as a whole team," said Little. "I'm going to push the guys around me to make some plays as well, because I don't want to be double-teamed, and I want the guys around me to do well, too."
After bouncing around from wide receiver to running back and then back to wide receiver, Little is looking forward to an offseason where he can devote his attention fully to being Carolina's leader among the wideouts while growing his overall skill set for the position.
"It was definitely a load off my back just being able to concentrate on my position (this past season), and not having to bounce around too much," Little said. "Definitely with Coach (John) Shoop finding some things that I do well and just harping on those was mainly a good thing, and he just found some strengths that I do well and he just kept doing it over and over."