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Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Take 2: More to prove, Fedora or Chryst?

By Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and Pitt coach Paul Chryst are each entering their third seasons at their respective schools, typically benchmark years during which the direction of the program becomes more clear. Both Coastal Division coaches inherited messy situations but have since been able to stabilize them and put their teams in position to win. Expectations should be higher this fall for both programs -- and it's anybody's game in the division race -- but which coach has more to prove in Year 3? Andrea Adelson and Heather Dinich debate ...

AA says: Paul Chryst

Chryst knew he was walking into a tough situation at Pitt because of all the coaching instability that preceded him. That instability had a ripple effect throughout the program, not only making an impact on players already on campus but recruiting classes as well.

Paul Chryst
Paul Chryst and Pitt will try to turn a favorable schedule into a breakthrough season in 2014.
All that has been evident in two seasons. Chryst has gone 13-13, and his teams have looked as average as that record indicates. The results have been understandable, given the challenges he inherited. Pitt, after all, had zero players drafted in the last two years -- a clear reflection of the dysfunction that existed.

Note the past tense there. Because Pitt football is not dysfunctional anymore. Headed into Year 3, it is time for Chryst to prove why he was hired. Not to be average but to bring this program back to an elite level.

The pieces are in place for a turnaround. For starters, Pitt has some bright, young talent at the skill positions in receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner. Quarterback Chad Voytik, one of the headliners in the first class Chryst signed in 2012, showed flashes in the Panthers' bowl game last season and is expected to elevate the play Pitt has received at that position over the last several years.

Four starters return to the offensive line. The defense, which needs to replace All-American Aaron Donald, does have some talent returning at key positions. The nonconference schedule is not incredibly difficult, either. The toughest game is against Iowa at home. The Panthers also avoid playing the top three teams in the Atlantic Division.

The Coastal is, how shall we say this, not exactly the same as the SEC West. Easily the more winnable of the ACC divisions, it is hard to label anybody a prohibitive front-runner. No team has an undisputed edge over another when it comes to talent. If Duke -- a team that signed one four-star player between 2010-13 -- can win the Coastal, surely Pitt can, too.

This takes us back to coaching. Pitt is chasing Duke in large part because of the work David Cutcliffe has done building the Blue Devils' program. Chryst did not have experience as a head coach before taking the Pitt job, but now he should be considered a veteran. Six coaches in the ACC have been with their programs for less time than Chryst.

There is no doubt patience has been required as Chryst has had to essentially build this program from scratch. But now he has talent, a favorable schedule and a favorable division breakdown. It's time for Chryst to prove himself.

HD says: Larry Fedora

For years, North Carolina’s program has been on the brink of pushing through to the top of the Coastal Division standings, even in the face of NCAA sanctions and a coaching change. Butch Davis hit an eight-win plateau in his final three seasons before he was fired. Fedora hit the eight-win mark in his first season before leading the program to seven wins in 2013.

Larry Fedora
Larry Fedora and North Carolina enjoyed a strong finish in 2013, winning six of their final seven games.
Now, as Fedora prepares to enter his third season in Chapel Hill, UNC fans should feel free not only to embrace the hype but to expect Fedora to deliver on it.

Fedora will caution that the Tar Heels are young, that the program still isn’t quite where he wants it to be. The youth on his roster, though, might be the greatest asset. At this point, there has been enough time to recruit, time to establish a culture, expectations and some staff consistency. The dust has settled from the NCAA sanctions, and UNC made the most of it with a victory over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last year. There’s no denying the program is ahead of Wake Forest and NC State, which are both still fledglings in the rebuilding process. In what should be yet another watered-down season for the ACC’s Coastal Division, this is the perfect opportunity for North Carolina to leapfrog Duke at the top of the standings.

One of the biggest reasons for optimism in Chapel Hill is how well Fedora and his staff have recruited. Last year, Fedora pulled in the No. 21 class in the country for his first full signing class. It was a group that included Ryan Switzer, who quickly emerged as one of the top punt returners in the country and should continue to be one of the ACC’s most dynamic return specialists. He should also have a bigger role in the offense in 2014.

In the past two recruiting classes, UNC has signed eight players ranked in the ESPN 300, including highly touted running back Elijah Hood this year. With T.J. Logan, Khris Francis, and Romar Morris all returning, expect UNC’s running game to improve this fall.

The entire team should.

North Carolina enters this fall 15-10 in two seasons under Fedora. He has yet to beat rivals Duke or Georgia Tech -- a must to win the division, especially considering the recent rise of Duke.

North Carolina, though, didn’t have nearly as far to climb.