CHAPEL HILL — For the second time in as many seasons, UNC entered a game with everything in front of them — rankings, awards, postseason positioning. And for the second straight time, it came crashing down.
The Tar Heels came into Saturday’s home game against Georgia Tech at No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Already ACC Coastal Division champions, UNC was set to play Clemson in two weeks with a chance to record a high-profile victory and move up. A berth in the four-team playoff was a long shot, but there were scenarios where it could happen.
Carolina was led by record-setting quarterback Drake Maye, who had emerged as a late-season Heisman Trophy candidate. Again, with an impressive showing in his last two regular season games, and a big night on the national stage against Clemson, Maye could have found himself in New York as one of the finalists for football’s biggest individual honor.
Instead, the Heels were outplayed and upset by the Yellow Jackets, who entered the game 3-6, losers of three of their last four and on their second coach of the year. The 21-17 loss was crushing to UNC’s late season hopes.
It was eerily reminiscent of last season’s opener. The ranking was higher — a national top 10 — and the Heisman hopeful was different — then junior quarterback Sam Howell, who Maye replaced after Howell left for the NFL. It was a different venue, warmer weather and another Tech, but the result was the same, a season-torpedoing upset loss — 17-10 at the hands of the Virginia Tech Hokies.
Things started off well on Saturday. On its first play from scrimmage, UNC had its longest running play of the year, an 80-yard touchdown by Elijah Green. On the second, Maye threw a 33-yard completion. It appeared the Tar Heels’ offensive show was up and running again. Instead, UNC managed just 252 yards on its next 61 plays.
Maye had his worst game of the year. After throwing at least two touchdown passes in every game this season, he had none against the Yellow Jackets and threw for just 202 yards, less than half of the previous week’s total and 82 fewer than in any other game this year. He also threw his first interception since Oct. 8 and was sacked six times.
“Everything on offense was off,” UNC coach Mack Brown said, pointing out that the Tar Heels dropped more passes than usual, including an end zone drop that cost the Heels what would have been a game-winning touchdown. He also pointed out that Carolina was just 4 of 14 on third down. That gave Tech a 35 to 26 minute advantage in time of possession.
Despite the offensive struggles, UNC came within a minute of shutting out the Yellow Jackets in the first half, but Tech got a rushing touchdown with 48 seconds remaining. That started a run of 21 unanswered points for Georgia Tech as the Heels were shut out in the second half.
Starting late in the second quarter, Carolina had four punts, an interception and a turnover on downs in its last six possessions.
The result was a loss as bad as any in Tar Heels history. The Coastal Division title and a date with Clemson are all that remain, and only because they weren’t at stake on a frigid evening at Kenan Stadium where dreams went to die.
“I thought we were mature enough to be in what could be called a trap game,” Brown said, “but obviously we weren’t.”