Still, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels can savor their best season in roughly two decades.
North Carolina (11-3) matched a program record for wins, won the ACC Coastal Division title with the school's first 8-0 run through league play and swept its instate league opponents by double-digit margins each time.
''Our senior class and the legacy that they're leaving, what they accomplished this year, and they set a new standard for the guys in that locker room,'' UNC fourth-year coach Larry Fedora said after Tuesday's bowl loss in Orlando, Florida. ''So those guys in the locker room, younger guys, guys that are all going to be back, they know what it takes now.''
The Tar Heels certainly changed their trajectory after a 6-7 season that included an ugly bowl loss. The most pressing issue was fixing a defense that had allowed more points and yards than any in school history.
The hiring of former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as coordinator to lead the defensive overhaul was the first step, creating a bend-but-don't-break unit that ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense after 12 games.
There was also a lot of work repairing the chemistry in a fractured locker room, staring with a clear-the-air meeting last January.
The Tar Heels lost their opener to South Carolina in a turnover-marred performance, but didn't lose again for three months.
The offense led by fifth-year quarterback Marquise Williams finished with averages of 40.7 points and 486.9 yards per game among numerous program offensive records. Tailback Elijah Hood ranked among the ACC leaders with 1,463 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.
The Tar Heels were in contention for a College Football Playoff spot, albeit a long shot, before their 45-37 loss to No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game.
North Carolina's defense struggled against Baylor, surrendering a program-record 645 yards rushing in the 49-38 loss. That loss kept the Tar Heels from earning their first 12-win season and will likely keep them from finishing in the top 10 of the final AP poll for the first time since 1997.
''We are just four or five plays away from playing the playoffs and continuing to play,'' Fedora said. ''So we feel like as a program, we're not that far away. I think our guys understand that now. And I think maybe our fans understand that now for the first time. . We can be as good as anybody else in the country.''
The Tar Heels had just 11 seniors on their depth chart for the bowl game and are expected to return the bulk of their roster including Hood, receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins, and several offensive linemen. The biggest focus will be on whether rising junior Mitch Trubisky is ready to take over at quarterback.
The Tar Heels also need a new play-caller with assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell now the head coach at North Texas.
Fedora - who has agreed to a new contract through 2022 - has said the fast-paced offense will remain in place.
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org