Tar Heels leave 2016 with big preseason goals unfulfilled
North Carolina didn't accomplish all the goals that were within reach this season.
The Tar Heels (8-5) entered November with a chance to play their way back into the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and reach 10 wins for the second straight season. But they lost two of their last three regular-season games, then lost to Stanford in the Sun Bowl to cap the year Friday in El Paso, Texas.
Coach Larry Fedora knows his team will lose plenty of experience from a group that had contributed to 19 wins in the past two years - and maybe quarterback Mitch Trubisky after just one season as the starter, too.
''This football team, in probably November and now in December, we just didn't play the way we would like to play as a team,'' Fedora said after the 25-23 loss to the Cardinal.
The Tar Heels got a bit of good news Saturday, with cornerback M.J. Stewart announcing on Twitter that he would return for his final season instead of declaring for the NFL draft. That came a week after top tailback Elijah Hood said he would return, leaving Trubisky and safety Donnie Miles still in question for next year.
The Tar Heels had hoped to become the first team to repeat as the ACC's Coastal Division champion since 2011, and had plenty of confidence in Trubisky directing an offense that had averaged 40.7 points and 486.9 yards during an 11-3 season a year earlier.
Trubisky thrived, throwing a program-record 30 touchdown passes with just six interceptions, and the offense had some big moments. Most notably, there were consecutive last-second wins against Pittsburgh and at Florida State.
But the offense faded in a loss at Duke, then again in a home loss to North Carolina State to cap a regular season in which Fedora said that high-scoring unit ''underachieved.'' The Tar Heels followed that with their third bowl loss in as many seasons.
UNC will lose several big-play threats such as career receiving leader in Ryan Switzer, receiver Mack Hollins and tailback T.J. Logan. Trubisky could join them after climbing predraft rankings as a potential first-round pick.
Trubisky has said he would take time to talk with family after the season and hoped to have a decision roughly a week before the mid-January deadline to declare.
''He's in a win-win,'' Switzer told reporters after the bowl loss. ''He goes and is selected in the first round or he comes back and has a great year and then gets selected in the first round.''
Still, UNC is expected to return seven of 11 defensive starters and the Tar Heels' two-year total of 19 wins is the most for the program in roughly two decades.
''I'm proud of what this football team has accomplished,'' Fedora said. ''We didn't reach the goals that we wanted to reach and that always gnaws at you and it will eat at you for a year until we get back onto the football field and play another game.''
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25