If it seems like every single member of the ACC's Coastal Division has been mentioned this offseason as a darkhorse division title contender for 2014, that's because they probably have. But it's hard to top the offseason buzz that has been around North Carolina as it enters Year 3 of the Larry Fedora era.
Among the recent praise coming the Tar Heels' way:
College football guru Phil Steele lists UNC as his No. 5 surprise team for 2014. More striking, however, is the fact that one of his power ratings calls for the Heels to go 12-0 this fall.
The Golden Nugget, which recently opened wagering on 200 games for the 2014 season, seems to think highly of the Heels. UNC is favored in six of its nine games that are open for betting, and it is giving 10 or more points in five of those six contests. The Heels are favored by 10 points against both Virginia Tech and Pitt, and, among games they are favored in, the only one they enter giving less than double-digit points is the Nov. 20 Thursday night trip to Duke, where they are giving the Blue Devils three points. Duke, of course, won at UNC last year to clinch the Coastal, and it returns much of its production from last year's squad. (Even the three games in which UNC is listed as the underdog hardly have David vs. Goliath odds: +4 at Clemson, +2.5 at Notre Dame and +1 at Miami.)
Marquise Williams was named a preseason second-team All-ACC selection by both Phil Steele and AthlonSports. Williams, who stepped in for the injured Bryn Renner, had a very strong 2013, totaling 2,234 yards passing and rushing, along with 21 total touchdowns, to anchor a turnaround from a 1-5 start to the season. But Fedora was adamant this spring that the starting quarterback job was up for grabs, and Williams will enter fall camp very much in a battle for his spot with redshirt freshmen Mitch Trubisky, ESPN's No. 7 dual-threat signal caller from the Class of 2013. (And yes, these preseason all-league selections probably say more about the lack of quarterback depth within the ACC.)
A number of factors have likely contributed to all of the offseason attention on Chapel Hill. 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, there is plenty of faith in Fedora, and rightfully so. He led Southern Miss to a 12-2 mark in his final season there, in 2011. The fact that the Golden Eagles lost their first 23 games without Fedora, and are already under their second coach since Fedora's departure, speaks to the work he did in Hattiesburg.
Still, this UNC team has a quarterback battle to solve. And it has some questions on both of its lines. And, despite avoiding Florida State, the Heels face a pretty challenging slate, including a three-game stretch at Clemson, vs. Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame.
Perhaps UNC will in fact emerge as the leader of the Coastal pack when all is said and done this fall. But for now, some of the offseason hype seems a bit premature.