North Carolina, to date, has indulged all the same Holiday Bowl festivities N.C. State did in San Diego at this time last year.
The Tar Heels have seen the whales and dolphins at SeaWorld, visited the famous zoo — the late Louie Anderson once quipped, “It’s like $50 to get in. I said, ‘Lady, we just want to look at the animals” — and toured an active aircraft carrier.
The Wolfpack made it that far. North Carolina should get to do more than merely wander around Petco Park and play in the actual football game there, unlike N.C. State.
It feels like ages in our increasingly post-pandemic world, but it was only a year ago that UCLA bailed on the Holiday Bowl a few hours before the game, leaving the Wolfpack all dressed up at the hotel with nowhere to go but home.
N.C. State’s players took the bowl trophy with them, briefly claimed a 10th win and were left generally unfulfilled by the way circumstances unfolded, especially after UCLA coach Chip Kelly proclaimed, the day before, that “if we have 11, we will play,” even with several key players already ruled out.
As it turned out, UCLA would not, without enough defensive linemen thanks to a wave of positive COVID-19 tests on the game-day morning.
That was COVID’s last gasp in the wide world of sports. Since then, the combination of available boosters, immunity, treatments and a more laissez faire attitude in general have made the occasional athletic absence due to a positive test a rarity, a curiosity, rather than a fundamental aspect of sports.
Even last year, it felt anachronistic, a blast from the past. We thought we were through with it then. Certainly we think we’re through it now. Which means that if Wednesday’s game between UNC and Oregon is somehow called off, it’ll be because of an act of God — or officials booked on Southwest — and not an active virus.
So thanks to the COVID cancellations in 2020 and 2021, North Carolina will (presumably) become the first ACC team to actually play in the Holiday Bowl, which has been a Pac-12 destination for more than 20 years but is new to the ACC rotation.
North Carolina might be as relieved as N.C. State was dissatisfied if Oregon ended up bailing the way UCLA did. The Tar Heels are a 14.5-point underdog, one of the biggest pups of the entire bowl season (Purdue, against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, is also a 14.5-point dog) and not without reason.
In the past seven weeks, North Carolina lost to Georgia Tech, somehow, lost at home to N.C. State, lost to Clemson in the ACC championship game, and then lost Josh Downs to the draft and half its secondary to the transfer portal for this game.
Still, this is why they play the games. Playing tourist is only half the reward for a winning season. The chance to finish with a win is the other. And while the Wolfpack is sure it would have beaten the Bruins, there was no guarantee that would have happened, nor is there any guarantee Oregon will win by two touchdowns on Wednesday.
In fact, as such a stiff underdog, Wednesday perhaps offers more of a chance for redemption for North Carolina than it would have otherwise. A major upset of the Ducks would not only wipe out some of the bad taste from the end of the season but serve as a springboard to greater success next year, with Drake Maye, among others, returning for the Tar Heels.
That’s the opportunity North Carolina has before it, at least.
Which, in this bowl game particularly, should never be taken for granted.
Never miss a Luke DeCock column. Sign up at tinyurl.com/lukeslatest to have them delivered directly to your email inbox as soon as they post.
Luke DeCock’s Latest: Never miss a column on the Canes, ACC or other Triangle sports