Must-win comes sooner than expected for UNC

Posted September 14

"Do you feel like this game against Old Dominion is a must-win?" Carolina tight end Brandon Fritts was asked after Tuesday's practice.

It's a fair question. Carolina is winless after two games and travels to Old Dominion to take on the new-to-FBS Monarchs on Saturday. The Tar Heels have shown flashes of promise -- they had the lead after three quarters in each of those losses -- but they have seemed lost on defense and, absent a defined leader at quarterback, inconsistent on offense.

But what does 'must-win' mean in college football, anyway? In particular, for the Tar Heels? Must-win...for what? To make the College Football Playoff? No; no two-loss team has ever cracked the top four. To stay in the ACC Coastal Division race? No; the Tar Heels are stepping out of conference this weekend. To continue the season? No; there are nine games in the regular season beyond this weekend. To save Larry Fedora's job? No; he's under contract through 2022.

I do think Saturday's game is a must-win, but not for any of the reasons listed above. Carolina must win on Saturday to retain some degree of fan confidence in the program. Going back to last season, the Tar Heels have lost four of their last five games -- with the win coming over FCS Citadel -- and have beaten just one Power 5 team at home since last September. The fans in Kenan Stadium want to see a winner. They want their time, money and effort expended to be rewarded with a team that competes for championships.

Yes, Carolina won the Coastal Division title when they went 11-3 in 2015, but that is the only season in the last 20 in which the Tar Heels won more than eight games. And when a season starts 0-2 with losses in winnable games, fans start to look down Skipper Bowles Drive at the Dean E. Smith Center and eagerly await the return of basketball season. It's not that Carolina fans don't want to see the football program succeed; it's that they want a team that they can rely on. And lately, Roy Williams' program is more reliable than Larry Fedora's.

Football has 20 fewer regular-season games than basketball, and so each Saturday carries weight. Sputter out of the gate, as Fedora's team's have, and pretty soon the team finds itself playing for pride or a third-tier bowl game. Carolina football under Fedora is 12-11 in August and September, with six of those wins coming over FCS teams and just three of them over Power 5 programs (and two of those over the same team -- sorry, Illinois). So the season starts aren't exactly inspiring confidence in the Tar Heel faithful.

Carolina is currently building a new indoor football practice facility, the construction of which required the relocation of the field hockey stadium, a near-complete tear-down and rebuild of Fetzer Field, home of the soccer and lacrosse teams, and a new track near UNC Finley Golf Course. The total cost of the project has been set at about $25 million. That's a lot of money invested in a program and a year's worth of headaches for several Olympic teams practicing and competing off-campus.

It's in Carolina's best interest to have a competitive football program, one that rewards fans and alumni making the trip to Kenan Stadium on six or seven Saturdays in the fall, one that commands their attention through November and into bowl season. So, is Saturday's game a must-win? Not for the mere existence of the program and Larry Fedora's future in it. But for the fans' confidence, it is, without a doubt.


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