I moved to Charlotte, in 1997 and was fortunate to witness the best football season in the University of North Carolina’s program history. In the years that followed, I met a UNC graduate and married her. That was when the real indoctrination to all things baby blue began in earnest.
Basketball, of course, is king at North Carolina. But the football team has produced a lot of excitement in recent years. Here’s one man’s likely biased opinion on the five best football seasons for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
UNC Football’s Five Best Seasons
1. 1997 (11-1 overall, 7-1 ACC)
The 1997 Tar Heels were straight-up stingy on defense, giving up an average of 12.2 points per game. That ranked the Tar Heels second in the nation.
One of the greatest players in UNC’s football history was a stalwart on defense that year. Defensive back Dre Bly picked off five passes in 1997 and took one of them back for a touchdown. RB Jonathan Linton keyed the offense with a 1,000-yard rushing season and 10 TDs.
UNC ended its season with a 50-14 win over rival Duke and a 42-3 rout of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. The only blemish on their stellar record was a 20-3 loss to Florida State at home in Keenan Stadium.
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2. 1996 (10-2 overall, 6-2 ACC)
This was the start of head coach Mack Brown’s tremendous two-year stretch.
Carolina’s defense was even better in the precursor to the 1997 season. It ranked No.1 in the country after giving up 10.2 points per game. The Heels reached as high as No. 6 in the AP rankings and they finished the season 10th.
In his first season at UNC, Bly had a career year with 11 interceptions. That not only established a school record, but it also led the entire NCAA.
QB Chris Keldorf threw for 2,347 yards and 23 touchdowns, and the Heels ended the season in style with a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia.
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3. 2015 (11-3 overall, 8-0 ACC)
This was head coach Larry Fedora’s finest season at UNC, and it actually started out on a sour note. UNC lost to cross-state rival South Carolina in the season opener at what was then Ericcson Stadium in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels didn’t lose again until Dec. 5, and unfortunately, that defeat came in the same stadium during the ACC Championship Game.
We were in attendance that night, and Clemson and North Carolina put on an amazing show. The Tigers prevailed 45-37 in a thriller that produced 990 yards of total offense. QB Deshaun Watson (yes, that Deshaun Watson) was unstoppable for Clemson. He threw for nearly 300 yards and three TDs and ran for two more scores.
Memory can be a fallible thing, but I’m pretty sure I left equal parts disappointed with UNC’s loss and uber excited about my decision to bet the over.
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4. 1980 (11-1 overall, 6-0 ACC)
Another dominant defense that included legendary LB Lawrence Taylor held opponents to 10.8 points per game.
In his final season at Chapel Hill, Taylor had 22 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, and 69 total tackles. He went out with accolades including ACC Player of the Year and All-American.
UNC’s bid for a perfect season ended with a 41-7 loss to national powerhouse Oklahoma, but the Tar Heels closed the year with a 16-7 win over Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
5. 1993 (10-3 overall, 6-2 ACC)
This campaign started out with great promise after North Carolina defeated USC, 31-9, in the season opener. Apologies, but we can’t get enough of these grainy highlights including the first TD of Leon Johnson’s UNC career. Dig the size of those shoulder pads!
The defense wasn’t as dominant, giving up an average of 19.5 points per game, but the UNC offense was a juggernaut, scoring 33.2 points per game.
North Carolina ended the year with a 24-10 loss to Alabama in the Gator Bowl.
Photo: UNC coach Mack Brown (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)