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Team to Watch - UNC

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Power vacuums are nothing new in the ACC; we recall one such instance not long ago, in the middle of the last decade, when simultaneous downturns by Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic half of the loop, and Miami stumbling in the Coastal, provided an opening for Jim Grobe's Wake Forest, which famously broke through for an unexpected league crown in 2006.

Similarly, the Coastal half collectively collapsed around Duke last season, allowing the Blue Devils to sneak in and steal the division. And while traditional powers Virginia Tech and Miami try to regroup this fall, there is room on the rail for another Duke-like entity to emerge in the Coastal.

Only this time, we suspect it will be North Carolina (2013 SUR 7-6, ATS 8-5).

There are several reasons to be interested in the Tar Heels, though before going much further, we are keeping a close watch on off-field developments regarding accusations of past academic fraud within the athletic department. Most of that focus is one the basketball side, as the NCAA has re-opened an investigation of UNC's suspect Department of African-American Studies, and evidence of shenanigans that involved numerous athletes, including several high-profile sorts such as current whistle-blower and ex-hoopster Rashad McCants.

If the subject matter sounds familiar, it should. Since 2011, the university has conducted several reviews related to the academics scandal and provided the NCAA with updates. North Carolina announced in 2012 that it had found problems with 54 classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011, including grade changes, forged faculty signatures on grade rolls and limited or no class time. UNC forwarded the results of that investigation to the NCAA, which ruled the university did not break any rules related to the AFAM scandal.

But, in February, the university hired former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein to conduct an independent investigation and instructed him to share relevant information directly with the NCAA. Former faculty member Julius Nyang'oro is on trial for felony criminal fraud as a result of the scandal, though the judge in his case is considering dropping the charges because he has been cooperating with the Wainstein investigation. The McCants revelations, recently aired on ESPN's Outside the Lines, have added another dimension to the controversy.

Whether the football program gets caught in the crossfire (and not the Pat Buchanan/Bill Press style) remains to be seen. Remember, the UNC gridders were already fingered by the NCAA a few years ago. To refresh memories, in March of 2012, the Tar Heel football program was hit with heavy NCAA sanctions, including a bowl ban for 2012, scholarship reductions (15 over three years), vacated victories, and three years probation. All after other issues of academic fraud, impermissible agent interactions, and ineligible players had cost football coach Butch Davis and AD Dick Baddour their jobs.

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Late in 2011, a new AD, Bubba Cunningham, was hired from Tulsa in hopes of cleaning up the mess. Meanwhile, after the football program waded through 2011 with an interim coach, d.c. Everett Withers, the Heels brought in the highly-respected Larry Fedora, who had led Southern Miss to some new heights in Hattiesburg, including a 12-2 mark in his final season of 2011 with the Golden Eagles.

Assuming the new NCAA investigation doesn't cause extra distractions, it's the presence of Fedora that makes us believe the Heels are the team to beat in the Coastal this season, especially after the postseason ban was lifted a year ago.

The 2014 Heels match the profile of a program and team on the ascent. For one, it is always natural to point to teams that finished strong the previous season and wonder if they can sustain that momentum into a new campaign. With a 6-1 stretch to close 2013, capped by a 39-17 thrashing of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, UNC fits this bill perfectly. Furthermore, Fedora's credentials, though well-established before his hiring in Chapel Hill, have become even more burnished after the USM program collapsed upon his departure, losing 23 straight games at one point and already on its second head coach since Fedora's departure.

A healthy dose of fourteen starters returns to the Tar Heel fold, split evenly among the offensive and defensive platoons (seven each). But before making reservations for the ACC title game at Charlotte, there are a couple of nagging questions. UNC still has a quarterback battle to solve, and it has some issues on both of its lines.

That there are some QB questions might come as a surprise, since jr. Marquise Williams flashed so much upside down the stretch in 2013 in relief of injured Bryn Renner. In just over half of the season, Williams' numbers impressed greatly, including a combined 2,234 yards passing and rushing, along with 21 total touchdowns, to anchor a UNC turnaround from a 1-5 start to the season, to a bowl. But Fedora was adamant this spring that the QB job was up for grabs, and Williams will enter fall camp very much in a battle for his spot with ballyhooed RS frosh Mitch Trubisky, one of the nation's top dual-threat signal callers from the Class of 2013.

ACC sources, however, suggest it is more likely that Fedora is spoiled for choice, and there is a chance that both are more than capable of detonating the fast-paced Fedora spread that scored 33 ppg last season. Williams also adds a dynamic run dimension to the mix. At the worst, most regional insiders believe UNC has two QBs it can use effectively. Since when has depth behind center been a negative?

Fedora also has plenty of depth at RB, where returning starter T.J. Logan (533 YR and 5.7 ypc in 2013) leads a quartet full of speed and power, and now adds the top recruit in North Carolina, Elijah Hood, a blistering 220-pounder who rambled for 3690 YR in his senior season at Charlotte Catholic. The receiving corps will have to proceed without the unique dimension of TE Eric Ebron (Lions 1st-round pick), but there are established targets still in the fold, including rangy 6'4 wideouts Quinshad Davis (10 TDs in 2013) and Bug Howard.

The questions offensively, as a year ago, lie up front, where last year's forward wall was plagued by inconsistency, and its top two performers, including LT James Hurst (in the Ravens camp this summer), must be replaced. Still, three starters return, and the "O" did score 45 ppg in the last five games a year ago. There are other pluses, including a crackling return game that was responsible for a staggering seven KR/PR TDs in 2013 (five punt return TDs alone by soph Ryan Switzer, also a deep-threat WR, and two KR TDs by RB Logan).

We have little doubt the Fedora offense is capable of leading the Heels to the top of the Coastal. Defensively, however, we're not quite so sure, although the platoon did seem to finally get the hang of d.c. Vic Koenning's aggressive and unorthodox 3-3-5 alignments as last season progressed. The Heels would allow only 22.4 ppg in ACC play last season, down more than 10 points from the year before.

Koenning's preference is to bring blitzes from all over the field, although it helps to get some push from the line, and to that end the replacement of impact DE Kareem Martin (Cardinals 3rd-round pick), and his 11 1/2 sacks from last season, will be crucial. Senior "Bandit" Norkeithus Otis (7 1/2 sacks LY), however, is the the sort of playmaker Koenning can deploy effectively.

In hopes of getting his best athletes on the field, Koenning made handful of position switches in spring. Speedy sr. Darius Lipford has shifted from "Bandit" to MLB, while sr. Tim Scott moved to safety to open up a CB spot for emerging soph Brian Walker. A key development will be the progress of sr. WLB Travis Hughes, whose enormous potential has gone mostly unfulfilled after being a highly-decorated recruit a few years ago.

The Heels catch one break with their schedule, avoiding Florida State, and will be able to ramp up to their meat of the slate that really begins with the September 27 trip to Clemson. But there is not a game that looks unwinnable. If that charge down the stretch last season (when the Heels won 6 of their last 7 SU and covered 7 of their last 8) was no mirage, the momentum could carry UNC a long way this fall. We know the Heels have the coach to get them to the ACC title game.

  
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