CHAPEL HILL -- From the beginning of the season, North Carolina’s football players insisted they’d let their play do the talking, focus on one game at a time, and wait until the end of the season to judge their overall performance.
But now one victory away from bowl eligibility entering Saturday’s game against Miami, cornerback Jabari Price on Monday apparently forgot the memo.
“We’re not really getting no respect,’’ said the sophomore, who missed the first four games of the season because of a hand injury. “As you can see, we’re 5-1, and we’re still not ranked. … In order to make a statement to the world, we have to show up and eat at the end of the season, right here, right now.
“...We talk about it all the time. You see teams like Virginia Tech, they’re 5-1 but they’re ranked. Obviously, being ranked is not a big deal to me, but it shows a sign of disrespect to me, personally. I feel like we’re one of the better teams in the country right now and we’re playing like it.”
The latter might be a stretch, considering the Tar Heels beat, but failed to blow out, a sub-par Louisville team last Saturday; and its defense has yet to live up to its high-impact pre-season projections.
See more than 100 photos from UNC's victory over Louisville.
But with six games left – all against ACC foes – UNC remains in the conference race, something that doesn’t surprise interim coach Everett Withers even after a tumultuous four months that has seen UNC suddenly fire its head coach, and respond to an NCAA Notice of Allegations after a year-long investigation into impermissible benefits and academic misconduct.
“I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the word,’’ said Withers, the first Tar Heels coach to begin his tenure 5-1 since Ray Wolf in 1936. “I think, we thought if we would play the way we could play – and we haven’t, at times – if we just played and stayed with the plan, then we’d have a chance to have some success.”
They do. If UNC prevails Saturday, it would mark the fourth straight season the Tar Heels become bowl eligible. And according to team spokesman Kevin Best, even though UNC faces an Oct. 28 meeting with the NCAA Committee on Infractions, the school remains confident that it will play in the post-season if it reaches the six-win threshold.
Typically, the NCAA doesn’t rule on penalties until 8 to 12 weeks after the hearing, which would likely be after any bowl game is played. Plus, Best added, a post-season ban is speculation at this point, as it wasn’t included in UNC’s list of self-sanctions that it imposed last month in response to the NCAA’s allegations notice.
“We talk about it off the field,’’ Price said of attaining bowl eligibility. “We set goals and talk about it and text message each other all the time.”
With a bowl bid on the line and ACC championship still in the mix, Price said the team is “shooting for the stars” in the second half of the season, because “we got tired of trying to be 8-5; 8-5 is almost a mediocre performance, and this team is far from mediocre.”
Told of Price’s comments, sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner shook his head and sighed, saying he would still prefer to stay under the radar and worry about one week a time, rather than focus on whether the team is respected or in the Top 25.
“It doesn’t bother me,’’ Renner said. “.I don’t think it bothers our team, to be honest. I’m the exact opposite of [Price] because the rankings don’t matter right now at all. It’s only week [seven], and there’s a ton of football left out there. I’d rather be ranked at the end of the season than right now. I’ll have to have a chat with that young man.”
BRIEFLY: The Tar Heels’ starting lineup was missing center Cam Holland, linebackers Kevin Reddick and Ebele Okakpu and kicker Casey Barth on Saturday. Withers said he was hopeful some of those players would return this weekend, but he didn’t know which ones.