Gerogia Will Healy’s Charlotte football program was all set to take off after winning seven games and earning its first bowl bid in 2019.
Then COVID hit and the momentum came to a screeching halt.
The 49ers managed to play only six of 12 scheduled games during a disjointed 2020 campaign that saw them win just twice.
But after earning victories in their first two games this season, including a nationally televised upset of in-state ACC rival Duke, the process of becoming a consistent winner appears to be back on track.
“Here’s what beating Duke allows you to do, and it’s a lot of things,” Healy said Tuesday at his weekly media conference. “It gave you an opportunity to get on (ESPN’s) GameDay, where people nationally are talking about Charlotte football, which is great for recruiting and our fan base. People around here understand who Duke is, and to draw buzz about it was important because you got it right off the bat.
“In a year last year where we didn’t have a whole lot of buzz about our program, I think it jumpstarted it and allows you to skip a couple steps in the build process. But the buzz only lasts as long as you’re winning.”
The 49ers followed their dramatic 31-28 victory against the Blue Devils by beating Gardner-Webb last week to match the best start in program history since moving up to the FBS level in 2015. They can surpass that mark — and match their best start ever regardless of classification — with a win against Georgia State in Atlanta on Saturday.
As desirable as that distinction might be, Healy doesn’t consider it much of an accomplishment. If there was anything to be learned from the lesson of last year, it’s that nothing is guaranteed and success can turn to frustration in the blink of an eye.
“We’re hoping to go forward with other opportunities to win football games,” the third-year Charlotte coach said. “Two-and-oh is great, but 2-0 is not going to be the story that is written about this season.
“How hungry do we stay and how locked in are we to playing our best football at the end of the year? To do that, you have to get better and better each week. … The most impressive part about this team the entire year and offseason is that every time they’ve faced adversity, they’ve responded.”
Now the 49ers are about to be tested to see how well they handle prosperity as they head on the road for the first time this season.
Although Georgia State is 0-2 after starting the year with lopsided losses to Army and North Carolina, Charlotte comes into the game as a slight underdog according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas.
Healy isn’t about to dispute that. He called the Panthers the best opponent his team has played to date and is especially wary of a running attack that put up 181 yards and averaged 4 yards per carry against the Tar Heels last week.
“We’re preparing for a very physical game,” redshirt senior offensive tackle D’Mitri Emmanuel said. “They’re a veteran team with a lot of seniors, a lot of returning starters, so their guys have played a lot of football. I feel like this game is going to be won in the trenches. We’re going to have to match their intensity and bring our own juice.”
The 49ers have already matched Georgia State when it comes to experience. Ten of their starters on defense are either juniors, seniors or graduate students, while nine of the 11 on offense are in at least their third season of college ball.
It’s a group led by quarterback Chris Reynolds, who last week against Gardner-Webb became Charlotte’s all-time leader in passing yardage. His 5,469 career yards beat the previous mark of 5,405 set by Matt Johnson from 2013-15.
It’s a record Reynolds said he’s proud to have. But like his coach, he’s more interested in looking ahead than behind.
After the travails of 2020, which included a canceled game against Georgia State in Charlotte, that’s entirely understandable.
“I know that football is not the most important thing that’s going on, but I also know that football brings these guys happiness and joy. And they want to play,” Healy said. “I’ll never forget looking these guys in the eye last year and telling them, ‘This game was canceled.’ I definitely don’t take it for granted.
“I want our guys and I want myself to remember that this is a blessing to be able to do this. The exciting part to me right now is that we get a chance to go play a great football team. I want competitive games to see how far our program has come. It will be a great opportunity for us on Saturday night.”