This has been a great year (so far) for University of North Carolina Football. The fans and the town are often bombarded with the outsider perspective that UNC is "a basketball school" and that, as one writer recently put it, anything they win in the football program "is gravy."
This may be the perspective, but it isn't the complete picture. Obviously, UNC's historic success has been in basketball, and basketball will continue to be the primary attention-getter. They are far more likely to continue to win basketball championships in the next five years than they are to win football championships.
But there has been a significant change over the last two years in the attitude of "whoever" is running the Athletic Department and a new TRUE emphasis has been placed on the football program. Why do I say "whoever"? Because most insiders know that Dick Baddour, the AD in name only, has virtually no pull over the program any longer.
It's just that no one really knows exactly who IS running the show, but they are obviously a little more interested in football than "Big Dick" was.
Last year, there was a minor student revolt when Butch Davis received a $300,000 "bonus" (i.e. raise) for what was perceived as a sub-par season not much different than the previous three years. They mostly failed to realize that he was probably headed to Arkansas if UNC didn't pony up the cash, and there isn't any clamoring about it this year.
The players have "bought in" to Davis' system and his recruiting is already paying dividends—and getting better. He has a shot this year at stealing Clemson recruits who have bolted to coincide with Tommy Bowden's departure, and he has a lot less competition from Tom O'Brien at N.C. State after two horrible seasons over in Raleigh.
Fortunately, David Cutcliffe, a significant upgrade at Duke, is not known as a recruiter.
Will UNC win the ACC? Rivals.com projects them to do so, but the favorite in the ACC changes on a weekly basis. Winning the ACC would certainly indicate that UNC is "over the hump" in their "football recovery."
What other markers can we look for to see if they are truly heading back to something beyond "above average" for the first time since the Mack Brown era?
Here's what I suggest:
Winning in the Regular Season Means Nothing without Winning in the Postseason
UNC's last bowl berth (in a minor bowl, at that) was a blowout at the hands of what was considered to be an inferior opponent. Now that Davis is getting them to a bowl, they MUST win it.
The standard will be a BCS bowl—the last time they were truly impressive was a win over Texas in El Paso at the Sun Bowl and a top five national ranking prior to Mack Brown's departure.
A major bowl victory can't be followed the next year by a loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Recruit Classes Consistently in the Top 25
It doesn't need to be No. 1. It doesn't need to be top 10. Phillip Fulmer proved you can recruit your butt off and still not have it translate to success on the field. But it must be competitive with the other ACC schools, including Miami, Virginia Tech, and Florida State.
A good sign will be major recruits from outside the state—especially the land of the SEC and Florida.
Establish "Real" Rivalries and Win Them
It's great that UNC beats Duke just about every year. But it means very little outside of the eight mile separation between Chapel Hill and Durham. N.C. State may someday be a decent rival, but not right now. Same goes for Wake Forest. Want a real rivalry? How about next year's tilt at Columbia vs. South Carolina.
This battle will mean the world for both teams and they need to renew this rivalry. Spurrier came into Chapel Hill last year and won a tough game. The Gamecocks were shut out in the second half and, though they beat UNC, didn't win for the rest of the year. I couldn't think of a better, geographically natural rival outside of the conference.
Win Conference Championships
Do it this year and it's impressive. The ACC is certainly not the SEC (especially this year), but it's still a major accomplishment. Do it next year and it looks a lot more impressive, because programs like Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech should be markedly improved.
UNC will need to prove they are not a fluke to deflate the negative media attention it would garner.
Finally, Rev up the Fanbase
Davis has done extremely well so far, and football has caught on more than at any other time I've seen during the last 20 years—including the years under Brown. The students and alumni seem to have "bought in" as much as the players. UNC fans are known for being fickle, though. Consistency is what will keep them.
What's the easiest way to stay on the road to achieving all five goals? Beat Georgia Tech next week. Sure, this is the long view, but it comes down to one game at a time, and THIS is a big one.