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November 25, 2011
"You are what your record says you are." -- former Super Bowl championhip coach Bill Parcells.
The beauty of sport is no matter what coaches and players say, the truth is told on the field each time a team plays an opponent.
As former NFL coach Bill Parcells has often said, there is no such thing as the best 1-8 team or 6-6 team in the country.
Mediocrity cannot be polished and pawned off as excellence.
North Carolina's players and coaches should keep this in mind as they make the final preparations for Saturday's 3:30 regular-season finale against Duke at Kenan Stadium.
"I feel like we're a better football team now than we were at the beginning of the year," interim coach Everett Withers said earlier this week. "I think you'll hear a lot of coaches say they've gotten better but their record may not be better. I heard Coach [David] Cutcliffe say it.
"He said he has a good football team that doesn't have a good record. I think he's right."
Carolina will either be 7-5 and almost certainly headed to a bowl with a chance to win eight games, or the Tar Heels will be 6-6 and will have gotten worse at the end of the season, not better as Withers claims.
In a duplicitous society, the blunt honesty of sport is one of its finest qualities, no matter what the game.
Carolina has talked about running the ball more and doing a better job with time of possession, hoping to take some of the pressure off a defense that has carried far too much of the load.
But the words did not match the actions until UNC traveled to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels clearly tried to run more and were well on their way to doing so successfully when Ryan Houston fumbled the ball going in for a touchdown and later when freshman Giovani Bernard suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet tackle.
For those who may believe this is too harsh a view, given the Tar Heels' head coach was fired a week before training camp opened and there has been an ongoing, two-year drama of NCAA and academic violations, just remember that while a team is what its record says it is, there can also be legitimate reasons behind.
But that doesn't make a 6-6 team better than its record. The reasons just help to explain how it got there.
The Tar Heels hold their fate in their hands. There is no reason they cannot defeat Duke on Saturday and finish the season 7-5, assuring themselves of a postseason game and a chance for eight victories, no reason other than if the coaching staff fails once again to dedicate itself to running the football as much as necessary to get a lead and hold it, and the players fail to bring total mental concentration to the field.
Excuses for driving-killing penalties, turnovers and standing around and watching as fumbled footballs roll around will not carry the day.
Carolina can be as good as it wants to be on Saturday, meaning it can win this game and do so with a reasonable margin, so long as the Tar Heels genuinely play hard, smart and together.
Hard, smart and together: three words that are easy to say, easy to understand, but difficult to execute at times.
Nonetheless, one would have to believe that after 11 games, a team with the talent Carolina possesses is more than capable of making it happen.
A successful day will begin with the offensive and defensive lines. Both have enough talent to dominate, so long as each matches its talent with desire.
Saturday will not be a day for moments of self-pity.
Yet Saturday is not going to be a day for perfection because no such thing exists in football. The closest the Tar Heels can come to perfection is to minimize errors and refuse to allow any mistakes to lessen their effort or dampen their desire.
This game is about want-to.
Do the Tar Heels want to walk off that field with a winning record after a second consecutive season of severe handicaps? Does this team want to give itself a chance to win eight games again and ensure it goes to four consecutive bowl games, during yet another season of unrelenting stress?
The final score and the record will provide us all with the definitive answer.