UNC football squanders an opportunity, again, as ACC championship drought continues

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

Simultaneous scenes, about 90 yards apart on the field at Bank of America Stadium, told the story of the ACC Championship Game here Saturday night. On one end there was jubilation. On the other, heartbreak. On one end, the culmination of opportunity seized. On the other, a portrait of opportunity lost.

On one end, there was Nate Wiggins, the Clemson cornerback, running into the end zone after his 98-yard interception return for a touchdown. His teammates, running behind him, caught up and mobbed him. Those on the Tigers’ sideline, players and coaches, spilled onto the field to join the celebration.

About 90 yards on the other side of the field, meanwhile, Drake Maye knelt alone. He’d just experienced the worst moment of an otherwise brilliant freshman season, one that once had risen to such lofty heights that Maye, the Tar Heels’ quarterback and part of a bloodline of UNC sporting lore, had last month became a worthy and legitimate candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Now, though, he took a knee. He bowed his head. He was alone, surrounded by 60,000 people.

UNC supporters here stood in stunned silence. Clemson fans jumped out of their seats.

A championship game turned. An ACC dynasty continued. The Tar Heels’ long wait continued.

Wiggins’ interception was the defining moment of the Tigers’ 39-10 victory. It was a line of demarcation. Before it, UNC still had a chance. After it, the Tar Heels essentially had none. There were still about 17 minutes of game time left, but it didn’t matter. At that moment, with five minutes and five seconds left in the third quarter, the Tar Heels’ 42-year ACC championship drought officially grew at least another year older.

There’s no real shame, it must be noted, in losing to Clemson — even if these Tigers aren’t quite those Tigers of their recent national championship past. For UNC, though, the loss itself wasn’t necessarily the most painful part. It was coming so close to an achievement this program has sought for the past four decades — just one victory away — and leaving so unfulfilled. Again.

Clemson has done this again and again under coach Dabo Swinney. This was its first ACC championship since 2020, but its eighth of Swinney’s tenure. UNC, meanwhile, last won the ACC in 1980, back in the days of Amos Lawrence and Kelvin Bryant, with Dick Crum as head coach. In the years since UNC last won one of these, Clemson has won the ACC 14 times.

At least there was some drama when these two schools met here in 2015, in a game that came down to a controversial onsides kick call that deprived the Tar Heels a chance to tie it in the final moments. There was no such drama this time. Early in the fourth quarter, the UNC side of Bank of America Stadium had mostly cleared out. Only those dressed in orange remained in large numbers.

Clemson fans stuck around. UNC fans fled. For both groups, this was a familiar outcome.

Missed opportunities and lost chances have become the usual for the Tar Heels. Their lack of high-level football success is especially glaring given the overall success of the rest of their athletic department. Football, for whatever reason, has always been a different story, with UNC coming close to breaking through — flirting with it — before proving it’s not ready.

Undoubtedly, Mack Brown, nearing the end of his fourth season in his return to Chapel Hill, will spin the positives: the Coastal Division championship, the nine victories, the emergence of Maye and the bounce-back from the 6-7 finish from a season ago. All true.

Also true: The Tar Heels were 9-1 a few weeks ago and have now lost three consecutive games. The Tar Heels’ defense was largely a mess throughout the season. The offense sputtered late in it. And the direction of this program, which seemed so certain (and positive, for that matter) not all that long ago now feels much more in doubt.

Brown on Friday said he believes “our best team will be next year,” given those the Tar Heels expect to have back, and maybe that turns out to be true. Maybe next year will be the year. For UNC, though, it always feels like next year is the year in football. When is it going to be this year? When is the time going to be now?

The Tar Heels on Saturday night had their best chance to win a conference championship in seven years. It disappeared in the flash of a few seconds in the third quarter. An opportunity seized, for Clemson. An opportunity squandered, for UNC. And the thing about opportunities is we never know when they’ll come around. A 42-year wait goes on.