IT MAY NOT be the top of the Empire State Building or the waterway along the Bridge of Sighs, but the field at Kenan Memorial Stadium has at least become the most romantic setting in college football. This fall in particular, love is in the air at the 88-year-old redbrick structure nestled in North Carolina's campus, surrounded by towering pines. In early November the son of an assistant coach led his girlfriend onto a freshly painted field and proposed in front of empty seats. Two days later a sellout crowd produced a thunderous roar during a 66--31 drubbing of Duke, when one cheerleader on the sideline asked another to marry him. Then on Nov. 14, after the Tar Heels' 59--21 rout of Miami, Damien Washington, a reserve senior receiver, found his girlfriend, Chemaria Beatty, under one goalpost. As the jumbotron captured the moment for the packed stadium, Washington took a knee in front of the woman he'd met in choir two years earlier.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
"Yes!" Beatty, an elementary school teacher, screamed, and the cheers of the crowd put an exclamation point on a day in which North Carolina won its ninth straight game to cap a perfect 7--0 season at home. It would be tempting to call the proposal a fairy-tale ending for an up-and-down program at the end of a decidedly up season, but with these Tar Heels it's impossible to know when—or if—midnight will strike. Last weekend they improved to 10--1 after escaping with a 30--27 overtime win at Virginia Tech in coach Frank Beamer's last home game. A preseason pick to finish fifth in the ACC, North Carolina has emerged as something unimaginable: an honest-to-goodness national championship contender.
It has been a season of the unexpected in college football, of startling falls of the elite (Oregon, LSU and, most recently, Ohio State) and uprisings at strange places (Navy, Temple, Houston). The most dramatic twist has, fittingly, revealed itself at the denouement of the regular season, with the emergence of three upstarts—North Carolina, Iowa and Florida (page 41)—that have each clinched division titles, giving them a chance to claim one of the Power 5 conference championships and, perhaps, a spot in the final four.
The most unlikely of the party crashers—the Tar Heels and the Hawkeyes—have spent so much of the season as outsiders that as recently as mid-October, neither was ranked in the AP top 15. The two programs share this too: Both were on the verge of unraveling after disastrous 2014 seasons, with their embattled coaches left to put them back together.
THE BEAUTY of Iowa football is that it has never relented, never given in to hyperspeed modernity or spread offenses, never wavered from its roots. It remains as conservative and, yes, as dull as ever. It is freezing weather and nondescript quarterbacks and immovable offensive lines and three yards and a cloud of dust. It is Hayden Fry, the steely Texan who won enough to become an icon in the state, and it is Kirk Ferentz, the only other man who has coached in Iowa City since 1979.
With his salt-and-pepper hair, perpetually miffed expression and shirt-tucked-into-baggy-khakis gym-teacher look, Ferentz is proudly staid, and after 17 years his teams can seem to have all the variety of corn fields. Even this year's players have remarked how little has changed as they watch highlights of past teams—Bob Sanders making interceptions, Nate Kaeding kicking game-winning field goals—as they loop at the practice facility. Like Ferentz himself, the Hawkeyes are never controversial and seldom noteworthy; they have had winning seasons in six of the past seven years, but their winning percentage during that stretch is an even 60.
Nothing would have presaged Iowa's run this season to 11--0, the only unbeaten team in the nation besides Clemson. Just 11 months ago, in fact, the program seemed to be on the cusp of a major shake-up. The Hawkeyes finished 7--6, but it was the way they lost the final two games—a 37--34 decision at home to Nebraska in overtime and a 45--28 humiliation at the hands of Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl—that left the loyal and steadfast fans restless. There were rumors about groups of fans in hamlets across the state collectively deciding not to renew season tickets, and the program faced its largest exodus of supporters in a decade. (The Des Moines Register reported that the loss in revenues from the decline in season-ticket purchases was nearly $2 million.) "There was a temptation to do something rash, a belief that some big change was possibly needed," says athletics director Gary Barta. "I don't think there weren't a lot of people who wanted me fired and wanted Coach fired."
Both survived the storm; it didn't hurt that the 60-year-old coach is signed through 2020, at $4 million per season. Still, Ferentz went into the off-season open to reconsidering all aspects of the program. In a January press conference he elevated junior quarterback C.J. Beathard over two-year starter Jake Rudock. (Rudock transferred to Michigan three months later.) He held extensive meetings with players and staff. He and his coaches visited other schools, though he won't say which ones. "In terms of changes that we were going to make," Ferentz says, "everything was up for grabs."
So the coach moved his practice time to 8:00 a.m., hoping to maximize the players' performance by getting them on the field at their most efficient hours. He also used GPS tracking and recovery-monitoring technology to guide further changes to the practice routine; from early Wednesday until kickoff three days later, the only work the team does is a brisk Friday-morning walk-through. The idea is to extend the players' recovery periods; Ferentz is constantly checking in with strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Doyle about the Hawkeyes' fatigue levels. "Instead of just saying to the players at kickoff, Hey, how are you feeling? the science is backing it up," says Ferentz.
There are subtle ways that this Iowa team is different on the field too. The offense is less predictable behind Beathard, a shrewd 6'2", 209-pound dual-threat improviser, though the fundamentals remain the same: run first (three backs have at least 449 yards and seven touchdowns) and play solid defense (16th in total D, with 322.5 ypg). And the Hawkeyes may be loosening up in other ways. Before a 40--35 win over Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium two weeks ago they ran out of the tunnel in "blackout" attire—the first time anyone could recall such a radical departure in their uniforms. "We'd agreed to it long before the season, and leading up to the game, [the players] were afraid to bring it up to me; they thought for sure I would say no," says Ferentz. "I think I shocked everyone by not changing my mind. I'm just relieved it didn't jinx us."
This is a new Kirk Ferentz. New Kirk has, in fact, emerged as a meme, with T-shirts popping up at Kinnick—NEW KIRK! GOES FOR IT ON 4TH DOWN! and NEW KIRK! CALLS FAKE FIELD GOALS! "My wife still recognizes me," Ferentz deadpans. "This New Kirk thing, I've figured it out. It's really easy. All you have to do is run two fake kicks early in the year that don't work, which we did in the first two games. And then you go for it on fourth down and win the game, because we went for it on fourth down a bunch last year, and no one was saying New Kirk back then. They were saying Dumb Kirk."
THERE ARE no prevailing memes around Chapel Hill, and despite the Tar Heels' success, attendance at Kenan is actually down 9% from a year ago. But anyone inside the program knows that the culture has changed, a shift that began in the moments after a 40--21 loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl last December. The game sealed coach Larry Fedora's first losing season (6--7) at North Carolina and left players speaking with emotion outside their locker room. "We've got some soul-searching to do," receiver Ryan Switzer told reporters. "A lot of guys need to really figure out whether they really want to be here or not."
The introspection began in January, when Fedora convened a players' meeting and encouraged them to air their grievances. They pointed fingers at one another but also aimed some at the coaches. "To be honest, it was eye-opening for me, a kind of gut check, to have the players say, We don't feel the trust with the coaching staff," says Fedora, 53, who arrived in Chapel Hill from Southern Miss in 2012 and went 8--4 and 7--6 in his first two seasons. "A lot of it stemmed from negativity, people blaming others, and I put that all on me as the head coach. So everything we did after that meeting was geared toward fixing that negative culture."
Each preseason Fedora gives his senior class a book to read and report on to the team, and this summer, to set a warmer and fuzzier tone, he chose The Positive Dog, a 100-page fable about one canine who helps another overcome his pessimism. Fedora also began referring to a 2007 University of Pennsylvania study showing that students' self-control can be a more reliable predictor of grades than their IQs—evidence that grit can be more important than ability. To further the team-building, Fedora brought in a special ops unit of former Marines to oversee a two-day boot camp.
Positive vibes, team chemistry and fables can take you only so far, of course. Fedora's biggest move was hiring former Auburn coach Gene Chizik to repair the defense, which ranked 120th a year ago. After two years of working as a TV and radio analyst in the SEC, Chizik dived into his new job, putting all his pent-up energy into 18-hour days as he immersed himself in ACC football and UNC's personnel. "The first meeting, he didn't come out with these general statements about how much better we were going to be," says senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad. "He had a specific plan. He was already citing red zone statistics and other specifics. The message was pretty simple: We're not going to leave anything to chance."
While the Tar Heels' offense has been shredding defenses, averaging 40.9 points a game (10th in the nation), the defensive turnaround is one of the largest in college football. Last year Carolina's D allowed opposing teams to break the 40-point mark six times, was ranked 120th in yards per game (497.8) and finished 122nd in yards per play (6.5). The Tar Heels have cut total yards by more than 100 per game (384.1) and rank 40th in yards per play (5.1). As a result UNC is a complete team that has steamrollered through the ACC since a 17--14 loss against South Carolina in the season opener.
"That's my fault we not getting the respect. I'll fix that," senior quarterback Marquise Williams tweeted last Tuesday, referring to North Carolina's place outside the top 10 (No. 11 in the most recent AP poll). Williams was referring to his three-interception performance in the loss to the Gamecocks. But last Saturday in Blacksburg, Williams rushed for 74 yards and passed for 205 and two touchdowns, including a gorgeous five-yard back-shoulder throw to senior receiver Quinshad Davis to seal the win.
In the Tar Heels' locker room after the game, an ACC official brought in the Coastal Division trophy and presented it to Fedora, who was grasping for words. "Man, I don't know what to say," the coach said. After a couple beats of silence, someone yelled, "We got grit!" and the yelping and hollering continued.
IT'S ACADEMIC," Kirk Ferentz explains. "We have to win out. If we lose one game, we'll probably drop to 20th. But the good news is that if we win our next game and the championship game, it would be hard to deny any major-conference team that could do that."
With a number of contenders still slotted to face each other this weekend and during conference championship week, the playoff scenarios remain dizzying. Ferentz is right to believe that Iowa's path to the playoff is as straight as the 50-yard line: win at Nebraska on Friday, then prevail in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, likely against Michigan State. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have a shot, but even with two victories, they'll need some help. They have a date at N.C. State on Saturday, before the ACC championship in Charlotte, where they will be substantial underdogs against No. 1 Clemson. A win over the undefeated Tigers would spark broad support, but North Carolina would also have to leap a slew of one-loss teams, including, for the moment, blue bloods Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
Fedora is not the type to go on national radio and make the case to the Finebaum Universe that his Heels should be one of The Four. "That was never our goal," Fedora says of reaching the playoff. From the start of the season he has begun his team meetings with the same mantra: "Coastal champs, state champs." One day after clinching the Coastal title, Fedora planned to stay with his mantra, but if his team beats the Wolfpack? If the fairy tale continues into December and North Carolina takes down Clemson?
"Well," the coach says. "Then maybe I would have to rethink things."
Soon enough, the college football world may have to rethink everything. The party crashers are coming, and they're ready to turn a tumultuous, illogical season into one of sheer madness.
MCELWAIN IS THE FIRST COACH TO WIN 10 GAMES IN HIS FIRST YEAR IN GAINESVILLE. "DOUBLE DIGITS," HE SAID. "THAT MEANS OUR NEXT ONE I GET TO COUNT WITH TOES."
SAYS FEDORA, "TO BE HONEST, IT WAS EYE-OPENING FOR ME, A KIND OF GUT CHECK, TO HAVE THE PLAYERS SAY, WE DON'T FEEL THE TRUST WITH THE COACHING STAFF."
Photograph by Jeff Haynes for Sports Illustrated
PARTY ZONE Iowa junior tight end George Kittle hauled in a 35-yard TD in Saturday's win over Purdue, which clinched the Big Ten West title.
CHIP LITHERLAND FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CLOSE WON Back Kelvin Taylor (21) and the Gators looked sluggish against FAU, but wins against Florida State and the SEC West champ would send them to the semifinals.
MICHAEL SHROYER/GETTY IMAGES
HAPPY HEELS A second-half pick by corner Des Lawrence (left) against Tech once again showed how an improved D has lifted North Carolina to the top of the ACC Coastal.
ROBERT WILLETT/RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER/TNS/LANDOV
[See caption above]