By R.L. Bynum
Since the offseason hype started about North Carolina football, Mack Brown has been the rare coach who embraces the high expectations.
Even as the Tar Heels reached No. 5 in the AP poll for the first time since 1997, there still are skeptics about whether they are that good. You can count Brown in that group even as he appreciates the accolades that his team has earned.
He should know because he’s been there before. The last time UNC was No. 5 in the AP poll was in Brown’s final season of his first Chapel Hill stint in 1997.
“We’ve still got a lot of things that we’ve got to fix. Our publicity is ahead of actually where we are on the field,” Brown said on Wednesday.
The Tar Heels (3–0, 3–0 ACC) are double-digit favorites for their 7:30 game Saturday night at Florida State (0–3, 1–3), their third consecutive game to air on ABC. UNC beat now No. 23 Virginia Tech 56–45 last Saturday.
“I don’t want to take away what they’ve accomplished,” he said. “It’s really hard to win any game. So, I’m really, really proud of them. And, therefore, the voters that are voting think they deserve it, so they deserve it. My point is, we’ve got to play better defense.”\
There are big differences between this year’s team and that 1997 team that ascended to No. 4 on Oct. 18 and finished 11–1. Those Tar Heels were experienced, deep on defense and coming off a 10–2 1996 season that included four consecutive weeks in the AP top 10, three of those in November.
“We had been good for a long time,” Brown said of that 1997 team. “We’re ahead of where I thought we would be at this time. But we don’t have enough experienced and key positions on defense.”
If UNC were to still be undefeated heading into November and still be ranked this high, that would impress Brown a lot more than doing it after only three games. He wonders why there are even rankings this early and applauds the College Football Playoff committee for waiting until Nov. 17 to release its first standings.
“I’m not saying we aren’t deserving. I’m saying let’s look at it at game eight,” said Brown, who calls polls at this time of year “more for hype and media than they are for real. That’s why I think the College Football Playoff started doing theirs late. And I’ve always felt like that’s when it matters.”
At No. 5 in the AP poll, North Carolina’s football program is in rare company with schools that routinely rise to that level such as No. 1 Clemson, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia or No. 4 Notre Dame. Brown points out that those programs can beat any team on any given Saturday.
“People don’t consider us in that group yet,” Brown said. “We haven’t proved that we’re a team that’s ready to line up and win every game every week.”
UNC is committing the second-most penalties in the ACC at 9.7 per game and has the most penalty yards per game in the league at 91.3 yards. Carolina is last in the league in turnovers created and third-to-last in turnover margin per game at -1.
Can Carolina win against a good team with the number of penalties they’ve committed each week and the inability to force turnovers? Brown would rather fix those issues than get the answer.
“My job is to make sure they understand if they beat Florida State, it stays,” Brown said of the high ranking. “You don’t win this weekend, life changes fast, and you got to head right back to N.C. State.”
He’s tried to keep his players from letting the No. 5 ranking give them a big head and lead them to forget how they became 3–0. Brown says there are no perfect teams out there, his team included.
“Let’s don’t get up in the clouds and start thinking this stuff’s easy,” Brown said of what he’s told his players. “You got here because of hard work and continue to do it. The higher that number is next to your name, then you become the hunted. Last year, nobody cared about us. Nobody said, ‘Boy, this bunch looks pretty good.’ We slipped up on a bunch of people. That’s not going to happen this year. So, the guys have to understand that.”
Now is the time for the Tar Heels to prove to their skeptics, and their coach, that they belong in that elite company near the top of the AP poll.
Pool photos by Robert Willett