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North Carolina Tar Heels 2016 Team Awards

Mitch Trubisky

Mitch Trubisky

It was there for the taking.

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Despite a head-to-head loss to Virginia Tech, North Carolina could have earned a second consecutive trip to the ACC title game had it just won the games it was supposed to down the stretch.

Instead, thanks to a 28-27 loss to Duke on the same weekend Virginia Tech fell to Georgia Tech, plus a 28-21 loss to NC State in the final weekend of the regular season, the Tar Heels missed out on that opportunity to win the Coastal Division again.

That does not mean the season was a total loss, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky, in his first year as a starter, had a terrific season to the point where some consider him the top draft-eligible player at the position.

But for a team that returned a ton from 2015, one has to wonder what could have been with just a few different breaks.

Offensive MVP: Mitch Trubisky, QB

The junior stepped in this season and exceeded all expectations by completing 281-of-408 passes (68.9 percent) for 3,468 yards and 28 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Those around the program expected Trubisky to be capable, but it's hard to imagine anyone predicting the type of success he eventually had.

Defensive MVP: Nazair Jones, DT

The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder made his presence felt on the interior of the defensive line as one of the more disruptive forces in the conference. For the season, he made 62 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and recovered a fumble. The junior has yet to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, but it's possible he won't return.

Best Freshman: Aaron Crawford, DT

After a season-ending injury from a foot fracture in 2015, Crawford returned and paired with Jones to give the Tar Heels a capable duo in the middle of the defensive line. The 6-foot-1, 310-pounder made 38 tackles with a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Best Play of the Season: Nick Weiler's 54-yard game-winning field goal against Florida State

With the Tar Heels trailing, 35-34, late in its game at Doak Campbell Stadium against Florida State, Weiler drilled a 54-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tar Heels a shocking, 37-35 win. The victory ended a 22-game home winning streak for the Seminoles.

Best Performance (Player): Ryan Switzer vs. Pittsburgh

Switzer proved all year long to be one of the best wide receivers in the ACC, and his showing against Pittsburgh serves as just one example. He caught 16 passes for 208 yards (13.0 average) with 58- and 19-yard touchdowns mixed in.

Best Game (Team): North Carolina 37, Florida State 35

Although Weiler's field goal will be what is most remembered, it should be noted that the Tar Heels, for the most part, dominated much of this game, as they held leads of 21-7 and 28-14. Against a team that finished with a 9-3 record and NFL talent all over the field, it remains easily the team's best accomplishment of the season.

Defining Moment: Losing to Duke on Nov. 10

At the end of the day, North Carolina not being able to win the Coastal Division despite being in position to do so down the stretch will be the main regret for this team. The 28-27 loss at Duke and the 28-21 home loss to NC State, both losses to in-state rivals, will sting for a while.

Biggest Surprise: Cole Holcomb, LB

The former walk-on made just 15 tackles in 2015, but broke out with an excellent sophomore campaign where he finished with 105 tackles, 4.5 for a loss and a sack. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, the New Smyrna Beach, Fla., native will be counted on to lead the defense in 2017.

Biggest Disappointment: Not winning the ACC Coastal

It's been mentioned before, but bears repeating: This team returned enough to make the splash and return to the ACC title game but failed to do so. The talent, experience and coaching were all sufficient, but the Tar Heels simply didn't make the plays when they needed to in winnable games.

Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Ryan Switzer, WR

There may not be a more reliable receiver in program history, as he will leave Chapel Hill as the school's all-time leader in receptions. He caught a school-record 91 passes this season for 1,027 yards and five touchdowns this season and finishes his career with 18 touchdown receptions.

Player to Watch in 2017: Malik Carney, DE

Assuming Trubisky goes pro, this 6-foot-3, 230-pounder could be the main player to keep an eye on for 2017. As a redshirt sophomore this season, Carney flashed his potential with 43 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high 4.5 sacks.

Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Replacing QB Mitch Trubisky

Although it may seem repetitive, Trubisky had a fantastic season that will be tough to replicate if he leaves early. There are other issues, namely whether or not the defense can show improvement, but filling the hole left by Trubisky's potential departure is the most important.

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.