It would have been foolish, given the circumstances, to have said (even halfway into the season) that we look forward to Tar Heel football next year. Although head coach Butch Davis managed to win some games and make the Tar Heels look respectable, it was a stretch to believe that he could continue to recruit in the face of two NCAA investigations. Worse, some of the recruits were questioning their choice of the Tar Heels, looking at far more historic college football programs.
Reaching a bowl game also seemed just a bit flat. So what if UNC was playing the Tennessee Volunteers? They were 6-6, sneaking into a bowl.
All has now changed. UNC is still among the better teams from the 2011 recruiting class. A four-star quarterback has reconfirmed his commitment after looking. And more five-star players may be in North Carolina's future.
Why has this happened?
Although many could speculate that it was the Heels' improvement over the rest of the year, the three most important factors appear to be Davis' ability to get his often over-matched teams close enough to win in the final minutes, his connections with the NFL, and the current speculation that the NCAA sanctions will not be that great. In fact, it appears likely now that UNC will not suffer any lost games or serious sanctions that would require them to miss any bowl games.
Admittedly, the speculation is premature. Harsh sanctions are possible. Yet UNC's previously unblemished record would seem to be the most important reason to have more modest sanctions against the Tar Heels.
So, the news for UNC football could not be better. The Tar Heels will enter the 2011-12 season with one huge question mark: who is the next quarterback? The answer appears that Bryn Renner, the quarterback in waiting, will finally get his chance. Renner was a SuperPrep All-America and ranked the No. 3 quarterback in the country. He was ranked the No. 6 quarterback in the country by ESPN.com. His future appeared almost certain as of the end of the 2009-10 campaign. Yet Yates got to start and did a superb job.
Next year is Renner's, with a ton of expectations. Yet a very good backup will have his chance as he enters UNC. Marquise Williams, a dual threat quarterback who looks like Michael Vick, will get his chance as he was no doubt promised. And Renner, should he survive, will be all the better for it.
Beyond Renner, many quality players will fit into a very decimated team. While for many this would be an off year, here's betting that a number of the new recruits have been told they will likely start next year. Included in this group of athletes are at least four or five that could start.
In the end, the best of all situations now faces the Tar Heels. They are coming off of one of the most historic bowl wins in Carolina history. They had a 5-1 record in away games. They are headed for more success than at any time in recent history. And their conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, has gone from the most maligned football conference in recent years to one that appears more respectable after bowl results are in.
Wait until next year is not going to be the mantra of the Tar Heels next season. It is going to be "This is the season!" All signs point in that direction.