NCF Nation: Larry Fedora

It was convenient for us all to write off North Carolina after another embarrassing start to its season, but one thing is becoming quite apparent about these Tar Heels under Larry Fedora.

They rise only after they have fallen hard, refusing to give in to the gut punches and the critics. Are they making things difficult on purpose? Because they seem to thrive on the rush that comes when they have been dismissed.

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsMarquise Williams and the Tar Heels beat Coastal Division foe Virginia in Week 9, and are looking ahead to the final four games of the season.
Two seasons in a row now, North Carolina has been labeled the biggest disappointment in the ACC through midseason. The Tar Heels are now following a similar trajectory to last season, when they overcame a 1-5 start to make a bowl game.

However, there is a key difference in 2014: North Carolina still has a shot to win the Coastal, despite a 2-4 start. In 2013, UNC began 0-3 in conference play. Right now, the Tar Heels are 2-2 and control their destiny. Indeed, the coaching staff has modified the popular one-play-at-a-time cliché into: One for the Coastal.

"Fedora's been telling us we still have a chance to win. That's still our goal," linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said.

Here, then, is another lesson in Crazy Coastal 101.

Duke leads the Coastal with a 2-1 conference record. Pitt, Miami, Georgia Tech, UVa and North Carolina have two conference losses each. North Carolina still has Miami, Pittsburgh, Duke and NC State left on the schedule. So for the fun of it, let's say the Tar Heels win out. That would put them at 6-2 in the conference, with a 5-1 record inside the Coastal Division.

In this scenario, Miami and Pittsburgh would have more than two conference losses, so they'd be out. Now let's turn our attention to Duke and Georgia Tech. Let's say all three teams finish in a three-way tie atop the Coastal at 6-2.

North Carolina would be 2-0 in their mini-group and would win the tiebreaker. The Tar Heels also would have a tiebreaker over Virginia, should the Hoos somehow finish 6-2.

Coastal. Champions.

All right, all right, we are getting ahead of ourselves, but the Coastal is the most unpredictable in college football and North Carolina is perhaps its most unpredictable team. In September, it lost to East Carolina 70-41; In October, it nearly upset No. 6 Notre Dame in South Bend -- the yin and yang of the Tar Heels' season to date.

"We're going to keep fighting. We're going to continue to go all out," quarterback Marquise Williams said. "It changed when we lost to Notre Dame."

Its 28-27 win against Virginia on Saturday also fits in the unpredictable category, after the Tar Heels fell behind 14-0 and trailed for nearly the entire game. The final five minutes featured an interception from a defensive tackle; Williams being forced out of the game because his helmet came off, only to watch backup Mitch Trubisky throw the go-ahead score; a gusty onside kick call from Fedora that made him look like a genius; and a game-clinching flag on Virginia with a minute left to play.

Now, a crucial Coastal showdown in Miami awaits on Saturday, where the Tar Heels' defense must find a way to slow down Duke Johnson.

The focus will be on that group, as it usually is, but North Carolina beat Virginia thanks to a much better defensive effort in the second half. The Hoos only had three points after halftime and totaled 443 yards, just the third time all season the defense held an opponent under 500 yards. It also was the first time since September that its opponent did not score 30 or more points.

Virginia is not nearly as explosive as Miami, so there is little doubt the task will be much tougher in South Florida. But if North Carolina can get out with a win, it will be much harder for anyone to dismiss this team.

"Our guys are confident," Fedora said. "They feel good about where we're at. They know on the outside nobody believes it, but that's OK. We only need the guys in that room to believe it, and they're believing it."

What we learned in the ACC: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
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Here's what we learned in the ACC in Week 6:

1. FSU should be the unquestioned No. 1. Florida State did what it was supposed to do and beat Wake Forest 43-3 on Saturday. The Seminoles are now 5-0, and there should be no doubt they are No. 1 after No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma lost. Yet there are those who might not see the Seminoles as No. 1, not after Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss turned in wins over ranked SEC opponents. The voters should be reminded Florida State has won 21 games in a row. It beat an improving Oklahoma State team, ranked No. 21 and rising, to open the season; it beat Clemson with a backup quarterback; and it outscored NC State 49-17 after a disastrous first quarter this past week. Not every win has been impressive, but Florida State has found ways to beat one ranked team, beat another with a backup and overcome a 24-7 deficit. Clemson, by the way, will be ranked before too long, so that win will only look better and better. The Tigers are a far different team with Deshaun Watson under center. Of course, the rankings don't really matter right now. If Florida State beats Syracuse and Notre Dame, it will be very happy with where it stands when the first College Football Playoff committee rankings are released Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Tech Zach Laskey
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesZach Laskey accounted for 133 of Georgia Tech's 318 rushing yards against Miami.
2. Virginia and Georgia Tech are the Coastal front-runners. Believe it! The two teams in the Coastal with the most questions headed into the season have gotten off to 2-0 starts in league play and sit atop the division. For now. While there always is a caveat in the Coastal, both teams deserve to be there. Georgia Tech ended long losing streaks to both Virginia Tech and Miami. Its 28-17 win over the Canes on Saturday night was as thorough an offensive domination as you can get. The Jackets rolled up 311 yards rushing and 21 first downs, converted 9-of-14 third-down attempts and held the ball for 40 minutes. They also came up with two turnovers to kill Miami drives. The Canes' defense reverted to form and looked lost for most of the night against a team that has the most predictable offense in the ACC. Virginia, meanwhile, held on to beat Pitt 24-19 behind a career game from Kevin Parks, who had 169 yards and a touchdown. Considering how the Panthers outplayed the Hoos in the second half, this is a big win for Virginia. Maybe a season ago, the result would've been different. No, the officiating was not very good in the game, but Virginia found a way to win. The Nov. 1 matchup between Georgia Tech and Virginia in Atlanta is looking pretty big right about now.

3. The two-QB system isn’t working for UNC. Mitch Trubisky was 1-of-4 for 11 yards and threw a disastrous pick-six during his limited time on the field in a 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech, and once again Tar Heels fans are wondering why Larry Fedora insists on the merry-go-round at QB. Marquise Williams has said the right things, but the off-and-on approach is clearly affecting him, while Trubisky isn’t getting nearly enough reps to make real progress. With UNC’s Coastal hopes on life support, it’s time for Fedora to pick his QB -- either to try to win now or to prep for the future. It is not as if the schedule gives them any breaks, either. North Carolina is at Notre Dame next weekend, with games against Georgia Tech, at Virginia and at Miami to follow.

4. NC State isn’t ready to contend: Clemson could do what Florida State couldn’t: get consistent pressure off the edge on NC State in a 41-0 blowout. The Tigers’ pass rush utterly smothered Jacoby Brissett, whose problems with fumbles under pressure continue to cost the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, NC State’s porous defense looked bad again, and while it’s clear Dave Doeren’s crew is better than it was a year ago, the ACC losing streak is now at 10 games, and there’s no debate who is the second best team in the Atlantic Division. Watson finished with 329 all-purpose yards in another solid performance, which left many to wonder what would have happened had he been the starter when the season began.

5. Louisville can win with defense: The Cardinals haven’t allowed more than 300 yards in a game yet this season and notched another outstanding effort in a 28-6 win over Syracuse on Friday night. Its 12 interceptions through six games were more than six ACC teams had all of the past season. Gerod Holliman has seven picks in six games -- something no one had done since FAU’s Tavious Polo in 2007. The defensive front has racked up 21 sacks already, and no opponent has averaged even 3 yards per rush. Yes, Louisville is having some offensive struggles in the early going, but it might not matter if Todd Grantham’s unit keeps playing this well.

Make-or-break time for North Carolina

September, 18, 2014
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North Carolina has only played two games this season, but it is not an exaggeration to say the Tar Heels are about to embark on make-or-break time.

Starting at East Carolina on Saturday, North Carolina begins its toughest stretch of the season -- seven straight games against teams that currently have winning records. Three of the next four are on the road, including games next week at No. 22 Clemson and at No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 11. Also in the mix are games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Miami.

"We know that the next couple games are tough and of course they’re all away, but we know we have to buckle down and we don’t need to start as slow as we have and hopefully we’ll get it together starting ECU week," defensive back Tim Scott said. "We’ll be ready for the games when they count."

North Carolina certainly has not looked ready in its first two games, closer-than-expected contests that turned on defensive plays. That defense has been a puzzle to figure out in the early going. It has the capability of creating turnovers -- it has forced nine in the first two games. Scott's interception in the end zone saved the win against San Diego State in Week 2.

But the defense also has given up way too many big plays. North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense, and No. 13 in the league in pass defense.

None of that is encouraging considering the team it faces Saturday. East Carolina has one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Shane Carden, who already has 1,031 yards passing in three games.

Getting off to a slow start in a third straight game cannot be an option. It is not as if North Carolina needs any more reminders, given the way the Pirates beat them in 2013. In that game, East Carolina jumped out to a 28-10 lead at halftime and North Carolina never recovered. Then last week, East Carolina built an early 21-0 lead on Virginia Tech and won.

Scott said he would give his team a C-plus for its performance in the first two games.

"We’ve come out with the Ws but we came out both games very slow, very unenthusiastic," Scott said. "San Diego State, they were a big test and they showed they were a good team and we weren’t ready to play at the time but in the second half we came to play and we showed what our team is capable of doing."

When asked for an explanation about why there have been lapses, Scott said, "We’re not sure. Our effort’s there at times. On defense, if you’re not running to the ball, then the big plays show up. That’s what happened. We weren’t running to the ball. Coach just has us making sure we’re running to the ball and making sure we get in our positions really quick because ECU, they’re one of those spread teams that likes to go fast and they can expose you if you don’t get there."

North Carolina is headed into this tough stretch off a bye, so the hope is that extra time in practice going over the fundamentals and getting extra reps for its young players will help. Coach Larry Fedora said he was happy the bye week came so early because it would help his young team get more work in "so that we can continue to get better at each and every position, which is going to help us as we get into that stretch."

Based on its showing in the first two games, North Carolina could use all the help it can get headed into the next seven weeks.

North Carolina's upcoming schedule

Saturday at East Carolina

Sept. 27 at Clemson

Oct. 4 Virginia Tech

Oct. 11 at Notre Dame

Oct. 18 Georgia Tech

Oct. 25 at Virginia

Nov. 1 at Miami

FSU No. 1 in coaches' poll

July, 31, 2014
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Surprise, surprise -- Florida State is the preseason No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.

Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.

Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.

Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.

Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.

Why North Carolina will win the Coastal

The running game. Last year’s team struggled to run the ball, finishing 11th overall in the conference in rushing with QB Marquise Williams serving as the team’s leading rusher. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and a more optimistic narrative unfolds. In UNC’s first seven games, it averaged 102 yards on the ground, 2.8 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns. In its last six games, that average jumped to 202 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry and the Heels scored 13 times on the ground. Now Larry Fedora’s crew adds hulking freshman Elijah Hood to a backfield that already includes T.J. Logan, Khris Francis and Romar Morris and promises to be one of the deepest, most diverse units in the league.

Special teams are special. Only Bowling Green (10) had more non-offensive touchdowns last season than UNC (9), and the Tar Heels’ special teams were a big reason why. Ryan Switzer was an All-American, scoring five times on punt returns last year, but Fedora says his sophomore only scratched the surface of his talent. Switzer may get work on kick returns this year, too. And even if teams work to avoid kicking to Switzer this year, he says that's fine by him. It will simply mean UNC will start every drive with solid field position as the opposition boots them short or out of bounds.

The QB competition. While the rest of the league is searching for one quarterback it can count on, North Carolina’s quandary is how to find reps for both of its QBs. Williams led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 finish last year and showed he can command the offense. Mitch Trubisky was a top recruit with a strong arm and impressive mobility. Fedora said he believes he can win with both -- and that means both will likely see some playing time. There may not be another team in the conference with as much depth at the QB spot as Carolina enjoys.

Why North Carolina won’t win the Coastal

The QB competition. Wait, what were we just saying about the advantages of having two QBs? You know the old saying — if you have two quarterbacks, you’ve got none. That may not necessarily apply to UNC’s situation, but regardless which QB is tabbed as the starter, the expectations will be high and any early struggles could quickly lead to a restless fan base and a divided locker room.

The offensive line. Fedora has been blunt in saying the Tar Heels will likely go just as far as their revamped offensive line can carry them. The unit lost two starters to the NFL after last season, and a host of spring injuries meant there was no time for cohesion to be built among the newcomers. Bentley Spain could be a breakout star at left tackle, but for a team with eyes on an ACC title, relying on a true freshman at that position is never an ideal scenario.

They’re just too young. It’s both exciting and unnerving, Fedora admits. He has just six seniors on his team. The offensive line has only three juniors on the entire depth chart. A host of key personnel on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores. Yes, this is Year 3 for Fedora, and he believes last year’s strong finish was a good sign that players are beginning to grasp his philosophy, but with youth come mistakes, and in a crowded Coastal, there may not be room for too many setbacks.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Music blared through speakers above North Carolina’s practice fields as players moved through conditioning drills on a brisk, gray afternoon last month, and Marquise Williams couldn’t ignore the beat.

He sprinted through a drill, bounded back to the group and began to dance. One by one, teammates followed suit, until a huddle of Tar Heels was bouncing and singing, with Williams slapping each on the back as encouragement. When a horn sounded to end the period, Williams quickly broke character and darted to the next drill, his teammates still following in unison.

“When they see me excited, they see me ready to go for practice, they’re going to be excited and ready to go,” Williams said. “I have to try to bring that energy every day.”

Just a year ago, practice was a slog for Williams, but he’s a different man now, and this is a different team. It’s his team, he said, even if his coach hasn’t made that distinction official.

In the midst of a quarterback competition Larry Fedora still insists is too close to call, Williams is enjoying every moment of the battle. He’s not simply interested in winning the job, he said. He wants to own the team, and that starts with the attitude.

[+] EnlargeMarquis Williams
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMarquise Williams stepped in as UNC's starter last season as the Tar Heels won four of their final five games, including a bowl game victory.
“I’m going to lead the guys, and they’re going to rally behind me,” Williams said. “I’ve been waiting around here for a long time for my chance, and I’m not going to let it pass.”

Williams entered 2013 — his sophomore season — as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart, with occasional work as a running threat to whet his appetite. But when veteran Bryn Renner went down with a shoulder injury midway through the season, Williams stepped in as the starter, winning four of UNC’s final five games, including a 39-17 blowout over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

The late-season heroics still weren’t enough to earn Williams a full-time job. There was no heart-to-heart meeting with Fedora when the season ended, but Williams said it was understood that he’d enter the spring with a mandate to get better.

Nipping at his heels is Mitch Trubisky, a highly touted redshirt freshman with exceptional mobility and a bit more zip on his throws. Through the first month of spring, Fedora has fed each quarterback a roughly equal share of first-team reps, and the UNC coach said he’s in no hurry to name a starter.

“At every position, you have to earn your position,” Fedora said. “Marquise stepped in because Bryn went down. When he was put in that position, he did a phenomenal job, led us to a bowl game and won. He did a tremendous job. Now I want him to go to another level.”

For Williams, that’s meant refining his game. His legs have always made him a valuable weapon, but his arm is a work in progress. Much of Williams’ mechanics are self-taught, and he knew the details needed work.

During his spring break, Williams traveled to San Diego to work with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. It took just a few quick lessons to convince Whitfield he had a star in the making, but it would take some work before Williams could embrace his potential. Whitfield worked with Williams on shortening his strides, minimizing his motion with his nonthrowing arm, working efficiently in the pocket.

“As I was watching him, I kept telling him that you’re much, much stronger than the ball says,” Whitfield said. “We just kind of set about trying to bring some of those adjustments into play.”

But more than just mechanics, Whitfield challenged Williams to practice with more confidence, comparing it to Justin Timberlake taking the stage for a concert -- never timid, embracing the moment.

Williams had that same power to galvanize an audience, Whitfield said, but he had a tendency to hide in the shadows.

“Whether you call it confidence or swagger or energy, it’s there,” Whitfield said. “But I didn’t want him to try to feel it out. I wanted him to kick that door on open and come through.”

So that’s what Williams has been doing this spring. Whitfield sends him the occasional text message as a reminder, but Williams doesn’t need it. He’s dancing, he’s encouraging, he’s leading. He’s taking the stage like he owns it, even if Trubisky is waiting in the wings to stake his claim.

“I love the word competition because that’s been part of my whole life,” Williams said. “To be that leader, I have to perform. When you say competition, I like that. I laugh at it. That’s my name: Marquise Competition. I’m ready to go get it.”

Fedora said he’s been impressed by Williams’ approach this spring, and it’s clear his teammates respect him. Williams’ game experience gives him a leg up in the battle, and if there’s one thing separating the two quarterbacks right now, it’s the confidence and comfort exhibited by the incumbent.

But the job is still open, and Williams is still charging onto the stage believing he’ll finally win over his coach. If he doesn’t, he said, it would be devastating, but there wouldn’t be regrets. That’s what this spring is all about.

“I’ll determine if he’s going to beat me out because it’s me that’s out there,” Williams said. “It’s not Coach Fedora or Coach [Gunter] Brewer. If he deserved the spot, he’s got the spot. Me, I’m going to keep working and keep going to get it because I feel like this is my team. I’m in the driver’s seat with those guys behind me.”

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ryan Switzer has heard the talk, even from his own coach, who warned him of the frustrations likely in store as North Carolina’s All-American punt returner prepares for his follow-up campaign in 2014. But Switzer isn’t interested in adjusting his expectations.

Sure, Switzer admits, he won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season as he did as a freshman. He expects opponents will do all they can to keep the ball out of his hands on special teams. Odds are, 2014 will be a waiting game -- but he’s more than willing to be patient.

[+] EnlargeRyan Switzer
MCT via Getty ImagesRising sophomore Ryan Switzer, who starred as a returner as a freshman, wants to become more of a playmaker on offense for the Tar Heels.
“Some team is going to test me,” Switzer said. “And that’s all it takes.”

After all, Switzer points out, Cincinnati had a month to prepare for him when the two faced off in the Belk Bowl last season. After a quiet first half, the Bearcats finally relented and boomed a punt in Switzer’s direction. At first, it appeared he might call for a fair catch. Instead, he hauled in the kick, darted up the field and dashed into the end zone for an 86-yard touchdown -- his NCAA-record-tying fifth punt return TD of the season.

“He basically did that on his own,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s where he’s taking his game to another level. He’s having to find ways to create those opportunities for himself.”

Switzer’s sophomore campaign is all about creating those opportunities, and that means expanding his role in the Tar Heels offense, too.

While Switzer isn’t hedging his expectations on special teams, he said the key to his 2014 season will be making strides as a receiver. In high school, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Switzer had largely been a tailback, and his conversion to slot receiver was a rocky one at times last season. In his first 10 games, he hauled in only 19 catches for 147 yards as he struggled with the subtleties of the position.

“He’s one of those quick guys that has to settle down and try to find where the holes are in the zones or beating your guy off [man-to-man coverage],” quarterback Marquise Williams said. “One thing about him, though -- he’s ready to work. It doesn’t matter what it is, he’s ready to go out and compete and work and figure out what he needs to do to be the best receiver on the field.”

The signs of progress were evident by season's end. In Switzer’s final three games, he caught 13 passes for 194 yards, including a two-touchdown performance against Old Dominion.

Since the season ended, Switzer’s focus on developing his skills as a receiver has remained sharp. On special teams, he was a whirlwind, but he has learned that same approach doesn’t work at receiver. It’s about patience and precision, and the bulk of the action occurs before the ball finds his hands.

One thing about him, though -- he's ready to work. It doesn't matter what it is, he's ready to go out and compete and work and figure out what he needs to do to be the best receiver on the field.

UNC quarterback Marquise Williams on Ryan Switzer.
“If I can get those things down and become more quarterback friendly, I can get more balls and more yards,” Switzer said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”

Putting in the work to get there won’t be an issue. Fedora said the struggle with Switzer is often curbing his zealous work ethic, pulling in the reins to keep his star playmaker from exhausting himself. But in an offseason in which Switzer has heard so much about the opportunities he’s about to lose on special teams, he can’t help but be excited about how much potential there is for him to make an impact on offense.

This spring, North Carolina finds itself in the midst of a quarterback competition, with Williams and Mitch Trubisky vying for reps. A patchwork offensive line is struggling to find cohesion. A bevy of tailbacks are splitting carries, and the offense’s best weapon from a season ago -- tight end Eric Ebron -- is busy preparing for the NFL draft. Ebron’s 62 catches and 973 yards both led the Tar Heels, and his absence means a gaping hole in the passing game. Switzer would love to pick up some of that slack.

A year ago, Switzer was learning on the fly, but he made him impact in the one area he felt comfortable. As the offseason progresses, however, he’s feeling more and more at home as a receiver, too, and that will make it awfully tough for teams to keep the ball from him in 2014.

“That’s why I’ve put so much emphasis on making sure I’m right offensively,” Switzer said. “They can’t take me away offensively. They may try to do some things where I’m double-teamed, but I’m going to get the ball offensively, and that’s where I need to make my mark now.”
First-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson isn’t entirely a stranger to his peers on Tobacco Road.

There was a transition period at Tennessee during which Clawson went to the same church as the family of current Duke coach David Cutcliffe. He’d speak with Cutcliffe occasionally, and he also knows NC State coach Dave Doeren from their time together at Mid-American Conference meetings.

Now Clawson is getting to know them all as opponents -- and he has some catching up to do.

Cutcliffe is heading into his seventh season at Duke. He's by far the veteran of the ACC’s North Carolina coaches, and it’s beginning to show in the win-loss column. Duke, which is coming off a school-record 10-win season and an appearance in the ACC title game, is now the team to beat in the state. The balance of power has shifted, as the Blue Devils are 5-0 against their in-state ACC opponents in the past two seasons, having defeated both Wake Forest and North Carolina twice, and crossover opponent NC State in 2013. With 17 starters returning, Duke should be a favorite to win the Coastal Division -- a long leap from being picked to finish last in 2013.

[+] EnlargeCutcliffe/Krzyzewski
Chuck Liddy/Getty ImagesDuke coach David Cutcliffe is building a football power at a "basketball school."
Stability is a major factor, as Doeren, Clawson and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora haven’t even combined for seven seasons at their respective schools. Doeren just put together his first full recruiting class. Duke’s relative staff stability (there has been some turnover at the assistant level) has lent itself to more success on the field and on the recruiting trail.

“We know a lot of people, and a lot of young prospects know a lot about us,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very comfortable we’re here. At first when we came in, people wondered why we were here. Not only did they wonder if we were going to be able to get this done, they thought, ‘Well, as soon as they start showing better, they’re going to be gone.’ None of that has happened. I think that’s opened a lot of people’s eyes, honestly.”

Clawson replaced Jim Grobe and inherits a program that has had five consecutive losing seasons, including last year’s 4-8 finish. He had to piece together his first recruiting class on a shortened calendar, but said that he can draw inspiration from what Cutcliffe has managed to do at Duke.

“I think we’re similar schools with similar institutional missions, but you look nationally at the schools that are like us -- Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern -- those are all schools that have had success on the football field and institutionally they’re very similar to us,” Clawson said. “You can certainly win. Jim Grobe proved that. Certainly it’s our job to get back to that level.”

Fedora has gotten measurably closer in his first two seasons, with back-to-back winning records in spite of taking over a program that was plagued by a two-year NCAA investigation.

In fact, the rivalry game between UNC and Duke now carries more weight than just bragging rights. Last year, Duke’s victory over North Carolina ensured the Blue Devils their first appearance in the ACC title game. This fall, it could determine the division winner. It’s quite a reversal of roles for two “basketball schools.”

“It’s something we embrace, that our basketball team has helped build the national brand we have,” Fedora said. “That enables us to walk into any school, any home, and those people immediately know who the University of North Carolina is. We embrace that. Coach [Roy] Williams is just an awesome guy and such a great sport about our program. We’re trying to raise the level of the success of the football program, and eventually we’ll get there.”

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLarry Fedora and North Carolina should be a factor again in the ACC Coastal Division in 2014.
They’re a step ahead of the Wolfpack, who struggled through a 3-9 season in Doeren’s first season that included a winless run against ACC opponents. Still, Doeren and his staff had much better results in their first full recruiting class, which included 18 players from within the state.

“It’s very competitive, and you have all of the SEC schools who come up here as well,” Doeren said of recruiting against his in-state peers. “North Carolina football is very strong. It’s very diverse, a lot of good players who play at every position group, so we have a battle with Clemson on every kid, it seems like as well. Tennessee is strong here. There’s always competition for these guys, and I’m sure there will continue to be. That’s just how it is. But being one of the larger in-state schools, we have a lot of alumni in this state, there’s a lot of kids who grow up Wolfpack fans, and there’s a lot of areas in this state that are very red. We try to maximize those connections and networks that are out there to help us.”

Duke arguably had its best recruiting class since Cutcliffe was hired, but the Blue Devils only added three players from within the state.

“We would’ve liked to have more,” Cutcliffe said. “We got beat on some, but we got the ones we wanted. We’re going to start everything in-state, always. We’re going to know a lot about our state. We know it’s going to be competitive, and you throw East Carolina in there, you’ve got another school, and Appalachian State is playing at the FBS level, and you’ve got Clemson that comes and recruits it as an in-state area. It’s a war in here, but I like that. That gets your juices flowing. It lets you, as a coach, compete.”

These days, Cutcliffe is winning more than just the state.

Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:

Duke

Spring practice over

What we learned:
  • Momentum rolls on. It's hard to believe the Blue Devils are already done with spring ball, but coach David Cutcliffe opted to open practice in February to capitalize on the momentum that was created last season. After the spring game ended Saturday, he praised the way his players handled the practices. There was a great deal of retention and not a lot of re-teaching, so coaches were able to get much more out of their players this spring.
  • Max McCaffrey emerges. Jamison Crowder had a spectacular 2013 season, but it was essentially him and then everybody else in the receiver group. That may not be the case this season. McCaffrey earned praise from coaches and teammates for the way he improved during the spring. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said McCaffrey made as many plays as anybody else on the offense this spring.
  • Stepping up on the line. The Blue Devils lost three starters on their defensive line -- both ends in Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento. But it appears as if the players behind them are ready to step up and make a seamless transition. Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each had two sacks in the spring game. Kyler Brown also made the switch from linebacker to defensive end and had a sack in the spring game as well.
Georgia Tech

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:
  • Justin Thomas takes over. After Vad Lee announced his transfer from Georgia Tech, the quarterback reigns fell to Thomas, who played in 10 games this season. The Jackets had their share of highs and lows under Lee, but what the staff is going to be looking for first and foremost is Thomas’ ability to hold on to the football. Georgia Tech had 24 giveaways and ranked No. 12 in the ACC in turnover margin.
  • Defensive line questions. The Jackets lose three starters on the defensive line, including All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu -- who had 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Who will step up and fill that type of production? The most experienced backups returning are sophomores Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble. Also, Travin Henry will get a look at defensive end after playing wide receiver last season.
  • Offensive line questions. Georgia Tech also loses three starters on the offensive line -- tackles Ray Beno and Will Jackson and center Jay Finch. The trio combined to start 117 games in their careers, so there is no doubt this is going to be a much less experienced unit in 2014. The good news is All-ACC guard Shaq Mason returns to help anchor the new-look line.
Miami

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby. Stephen Morris is gone, but the Canes do have at least one experienced quarterback on the roster in Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who has served as Morris’ backup the last two seasons. As a true freshman with the Tigers, Williams started 10 games -- all the way back in 2010. Challenging Williams is redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who had a bit of a rocky first year in Miami, along with Gray Crow.
  • Defensive improvements. Perhaps more than what happens at quarterback, Miami must see improvements out of its defense this season. Embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio kept his job but the status quo cannot persist. Every single area of the defense must be upgraded. Ranking No. 13 in the ACC in total defense just can’t happen again.
  • Defensive improvements, Part II. To try and help the secondary, Miami already moved Dallas Crawford over to safety, where the Canes could use the help. But Miami must be stronger on the defensive front. The Canes only had 12 sacks in eight conference games. By comparison, BC led the way with 25 sacks in conference games. This is a big opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Ufomba Kamalu to really step up.
North Carolina

Spring start: Started March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Marquise Williams took over as the starter when Bryn Renner was gone for the season and ended up helping the Tar Heels make a bowl game after a 1-5 start. But coach Larry Fedora said the competition is open this spring. Look for Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker to give Williams a major push.
  • Defensive line questions. Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson are both gone, leaving big holes in the North Carolina front. Martin ended up notching 21.5 tackles for loss to rank No. 3 in the ACC. So who are the next guys up? At end, Junior Gnonkonde and Jessie Rogers are the top two contenders, while Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will compete for one of the tackle spots.
  • Replacing Ebron. Eric Ebron was dynamic at tight end for the Tar Heels last season, leading the team with 62 receptions for 973 yards, while adding three touchdowns. Will the Tar Heels be able to replace that type of production with just one player? Jack Tabb would be next in line among the tight ends, but this is a huge opportunity for the North Carolina receiving group as well. We saw plenty of promise out of young guys like Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.
Pitt

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: No spring game. Last day of practice April 13

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Chad Voytik played really well in relief of an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game, but coach Paul Chryst said the competition to win the starting job is open headed into the spring. At this point, Voytik and Trey Anderson are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. So you can bet the biggest goal of all is to keep them both healthy.
  • Replacing Aaron Donald. One of the biggest surprises in all of college football this past season was the emergence and utter dominance of Donald at defensive tackle. Donald swept every major defensive award after notching 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Darryl Render is the next man up.
  • Complementary receiver. Devin Street is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd as the only standout receiver on the roster. Not only do the Panthers have to develop a consistent No. 2 receiver, they also have to develop some depth. Watch for Manasseh Garner, a former H-back who moved to receiver late last season when Street got hurt. He is more physical than Boyd, and has some extended playing experience.
Virginia

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. David Watford is not guaranteed to win his starting job back after last season, when he threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are also in the mix and reps with the first team will be split. In fact, Lambert got the first-team reps when the Hoos opened spring ball last weekend.
  • Andrew Brown. The highly-touted freshman will have every opportunity to win a starting job at defensive tackle, and it all starts in spring ball. The No. 3-ranked player in the ESPN 300 comes in with tons of hype; now can he translate that into on-field success? He, Donte Wilkins and Chris Brathwaite will be competing to start next to David Dean.
  • Mr. McGee. Jake McGee was the best player the Hoos had among the group of tight ends and receivers a year ago, leading the team with 43 catches for 395 yards. This spring, McGee has now moved over to receiver so the Hoos can take advantage of his athletic ability. Plus, Virginia is lacking playmakers at the position, so we’ll see how much this move benefits both McGee and the offense.
Virginia Tech

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Quarterback. Mark Leal heads into the spring with a leg up in the quarterback competition but make no mistake, there is no set starter. He will get competition from freshmen Andrew Ford and Brenden Motley in the spring, with freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer arriving in summer. This competition will likely drag on into the fall.
  • Front seven. The Hokies are losing five terrific players up front, including ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, and linebacker Jack Tyler, who racked up 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. There is no doubt a major priority this spring is finding their replacements and building depth along the line and at linebacker. Who will step up as the leader of this group with Tyler gone?
  • Skill players. This has been an ongoing theme over the last two seasons and will continue to be a theme until the Hokies have consistently good players at running back and receiver. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is excited about the return of tight end Ryan Malleck, and his entire tight end group for that matter. A healthy Malleck and improvement from Kalvin Cline means the Hokies could simultaneously improve their run and pass game.

The Belk Bowl unfolded quickly as North Carolina jumped out to an early lead over Cincinnati and never looked back Saturday, running away with a 39-17 win. Here's how it all happened:

It was over when: Can a game be over almost as soon as it begins? North Carolina started off as strong as conceivably possible, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run from Romar Morris with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter. Just three minutes later, the Tar Heels delivered what proved to be a debilitating series of jabs as Kareem Martin got the sack-safety and T.J. Logan followed that up by taking the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score, resulting in a 9-point swing. Cincinnati showed some life in the second half, but the 16-point deficit was ultimately too much to overcome.

Game ball goes to: Even without Blake Anderson calling plays, North Carolina didn't miss a beat. Marquise Williams executed the offense in perfect tandem with head coach Larry Fedora, who subbed in while his former offensive coordinator was off starting his own head-coaching career at Arkansas State. Williams, a talented sophomore, spread the ball around in the air, completing passes to seven different receivers while rushing for 46 yards. He finished the game with 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 19-of-33 passing.

Unsung hero: Make no mistake, North Carolina won the Belk Bowl in the trenches. A tip of the cap should go to both the offensive and defensive lines. The Tar Heels wouldn't have jumped out to such a big lead without the defense providing four sacks and three three-and-outs in the first half. Cincinnati's line entered the game having allowed 12 sacks all season, but UNC wound up with five on the day. UNC's offensive line, meanwhile, allowed for a balanced offensive attack, with 171 yards through the air and 174 yards on the ground.

Stat of the game: North Carolina got the monkey off its back by finally not rejecting some good old-fashioned home cooking. The Tar Heels won a bowl game in their home state for the first time after losing the three previous bowl games they played in Charlotte. Ryan Switzer, meanwhile, managed to tie an NCAA record by returning his fifth punt for a touchdown this season. Where many would have called for a fair catch in the third quarter against the Bearcats, Switzer hung in, caught the ball with a number of defenders in the vicinity and weaved upfield 85 yards for the score.

What North Carolina learned: Fedora taught his Tar Heels that it's not how you start but how you finish. Ending the season with six wins in seven games was impressive. Getting above .500 after starting off the year 1-5 was incredible. The hope for North Carolina is that the momentum coming out of the Belk Bowl will carry over into next season and such a furious surge won't be necessary to reach the postseason again. With Williams, freshman tailback Logan, freshman receiver Switzer and sophomore receivers T.J. Thorpe and Quinshad Davis all returning to Chapel Hill, the future is bright.

What Cincinnati learned: The Bearcats, on the other hand, end the season on a sour note. The momentum of winning six straight games late in the year was almost entirely wiped out after losing in overtime against Louisville on Dec. 5 and then getting blown out by North Carolina on Saturday. Next season will be tough for head coach Tommy Tuberville, as he will be without senior quarterback Brendon Kay and the quarterback of the defense in senior linebacker Greg Blair. But with the much-traveled redshirt freshman transfer quarterback Gunner Kiel entering the fold, there's reason for optimism. The former No. 3-ranked quarterback in the 2012 class has all the tools to do well in the Bearcats' spread offense.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Belk Bowl, click here.

Crowded postseason could await ACC

November, 21, 2013
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Here’s the good news: The ACC currently has eight bowl-eligible teams and four more with a chance to reach the six-win mark. The SEC is the only other major conference with the potential to have 12 bowl-eligible teams, which would set an ACC record.

The bad news? The ACC only has eight bowl tie-ins this year, meaning some qualified programs are going to need an assist.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's James Wilder, Jr.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIf Florida State wins the ACC and plays for a national championship, it would open another bowl slot for the league.
NC State and Virginia are the only teams in the 14-member ACC that have mathematically been eliminated from the postseason. The conference is guaranteed to add a ninth bowl-eligible team this weekend, as the winner of the Pitt-Syracuse game will earn its sixth win. Barring an upset, North Carolina is also likely to join the club, as the Tar Heels are playing an overmatched Old Dominion team.

“It’s extremely important that there’s a home for your bowl-eligible teams,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora, whose team has battled back from a 1-5 start. “Nobody knows how it’s all going to shake out, but in the long run, it usually works out. One good thing about it is fans travel and they love bowl games, so there’s usually going to be a home.”

The ACC’s bowl partnerships and selection process will change next year and become more favorable to the expanded version of the ACC, but this fall, the league faces the task of making sure the hard work of their eligible teams doesn’t go unrewarded in the postseason.

“We’re proactively talking with bowls across the country that may have exposure in terms of not getting their contracts filled to see if we might be a good fit for them,” said Michael Strickland, the ACC’s associate commissioner for football operations.

Strickland wouldn’t comment on which bowls the ACC is looking into, but there are options available. The New Era Pinstripe Bowl will not have a Big 12 team, regardless of how many teams that conference sends to the BCS. At 3-7, Army also will not fill its slot in the Poinsettia Bowl.

“Certainly we’ll want to evaluate opportunities that make sense in terms of attractive destinations and quality opponents, if we’re so fortunate to have options,” Strickland said. “Those are some of the same factors we used this spring on our future bowl deals. We just had a nice league-wide discussion about what’s important to us in bowl opportunities, so this might give us an opportunity to implement some of those philosophies if we’re so fortunate to have options.”

The ACC has seven non-BCS bowl contracts, and a longstanding partnership with the Discover Orange Bowl, home of the ACC champion. It also has a conditional partnership with the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but BYU has already accepted an invitation, and the Pac-12, which currently has eight bowl-eligible teams, will fill the opposing slot.

If Florida State plays for the national title and Clemson plays in the Orange Bowl as many predict, it would help open another slot in the ACC. It would also be the second time in three years that the ACC has had two teams in BCS bowls.

This year, the final year of the ACC’s current bowl contract, there is a selection order. After the national championship and the Orange Bowl, the order is as follows: Chick-fil-A Bowl, Russell Athletic Bowl, Hyundai Sun Bowl, Belk Bowl, Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Advocare V100 Bowl, and the Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman. There is a one-win rule within conference play that helps govern the selection process. (For example, a 3-5 team can’t be chosen over a 5-3 team).

Next year, the selection process will turn into more of a discussion than a hierarchy.

[+] EnlargeAndre Williams
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsBy beating NC State, Andre Williams and Boston College became the ACC's eighth bowl-eligible team.
“We’re putting more emphasis on regions, so that the games are more accessible for fans, putting more value on unique on-field matchups, so there’s a lot more flexibility in the selection process in the new contracts than we’ve got in the current contracts,” Strickland said. “No one game is more or less important or valuable than the other. They’re all equal, and we all get together as partners – the bowls and conferences involved – to determine what makes the most sense for everybody.”

For the next six years, the ACC will have more bowl options, starting with the College Football Playoff and the host bowls. The Capital One bowl is another possibility if the Big Ten is the ACC’s opponent in the Orange Bowl. The conference will also have contracts with the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl, the Belk Bowl, the Sun Bowl, and a combination of the Music City and Gator Bowls (three years at each). The ACC will also continue its relationships with the Independence Bowl, Military Bowl, and has added relationships with the new Detroit Lions Bowl, and the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

“Right there you’re got a number of opportunities,” Strickland said. “That gives us that added depth we think we’ll need. Those were the first contracts we could negotiate at a 14-member league. We evaluated our historical bowl eligibility numbers based upon our new membership mix and then negotiated deals accordingly.”

At least six ACC teams have earned bowl bids in each of the past seven years, but not since 2008 has the ACC had 10 teams qualify, which was an NCAA record that year.

“I think it speaks to the strength of the conference,” said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles made one of the biggest turnarounds in the country this year and have won three straight to become bowl eligible with last week’s win against NC State. “The ACC, our conference is very, very strong. Not only do we have strength at the top, we’re also having a lot of programs like ours that have been down and are coming back up and creating great balance. It’s a good problem to have.”

And one the ACC has already begun trying to solve.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
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Here's a look back at five lessons learned in the ACC, in no particular order:

1. The Coastal Division is wide-open. With Miami and Virginia Tech losing Saturday, there are plenty of scenarios in the Coastal Division race. It's still the Canes' division to lose, as they're the only team remaining with just one ACC loss, but they end the season with four straight division games, including a home game against Virginia Tech this week. With the Hokies' loss to Boston College, their game against the Hurricanes is basically an elimination game. If Miami loses to Virginia Tech, confusion will ensue. Right now, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke are all tied with two ACC losses each. With Pitt's loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Panthers lost their best shot at staying relevant in the race.

[+] EnlargeAllen Hurns, P.J. Williams
Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/MCTMiami was tied 7-7 with FSU after Allen Hurns' touchdown catch, but the Noles were too strong.
2. Miami ran out of magic. For three straight weeks, the Canes found a way to overcome double-digit deficits and win. Not against the Noles. Miami finally ran into a superior team that brought the Canes back to reality with a 41-14 loss. Earlier this week, Miami coach Al Golden told ESPN.com that Florida State lost 11 NFL draft picks and was able to reload, and his program isn't there yet. Golden has the program heading in the right direction, but Saturday was a reminder that it's not there yet, and that rival FSU still has the upper hand between the two programs. It was also yet another example of just how dominant the Noles are this year.

3. Wake Forest is in big trouble. Not only did the Deacs lose to Syracuse 13-0, but they also lost their best offensive player, receiver Michael Campanaro. Campanaro broke his collarbone and will miss four to six weeks, according to a school spokesman. With that projected timetable, he is likely to miss the rest of the regular season. Wake Forest has games remaining against No. 3 Florida State, Duke and Vanderbilt. The Deacs have a bye on Nov. 16. Saturday was a game Wake really needed to win to keep its bowl hopes alive. Now, the Deacs need to win two of their last three, and it seems unlikely -- especially without "Camp."

4. Virginia Tech isn't getting better -- but BC is. For the second straight week, Virginia Tech turned it over four times in a loss, this time to Boston College. Following the season-opening loss to Alabama, Virginia Tech reeled off six straight wins and appeared to have turned the page on last year's subpar season, but back-to-back losses against Duke and Boston College -- two programs that combined for eight wins last year -- have been a not-so-subtle reminder that the problems persist. BC deserves credit for its 34-27 win, but Logan Thomas was picked off twice and fumbled twice, leading to 17 points for BC. The Eagles, though, are clearly a different team under Steve Addazio. It finally was reflected in the win column.

5. Larry Fedora remains a step ahead of NC State. For the second straight season, Fedora beat rival NC State, and this time he did it in Raleigh. It was UNC's first win in Carter-Finley Stadium since 2005, and Fedora became just one of four coaches to beat NC State twice in his first two tries. North Carolina has its problems this year, but NC State isn't one of them. The Pack are still winless in conference play in the first season under Dave Doeren.

3-point stance: Iowa wins when careful

October, 23, 2013
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1. Iowa has played seven games and lost four fumbles, one more than the Hawkeyes lost all of last season. In fact, the Hawkeyes are only plus-one in turnover margin. A trademark of Kirk Ferentz’s teams is that they take care of the ball. Iowa hasn’t finished with a negative turnover margin since 2006. “It’s been read and reported by everybody,” Ferentz said at his press conference Tuesday. “When we're ahead of the turnover takeover deal, we're in the win column.”

2. No. 11 Auburn is 6-1 because first-year head coach Gus Malzahn is coaching a roster recruited to play in his offense (he served as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11). He has round pegs for his round holes. Then there’s Southern Missisippi, which went 0-12 last season and fired first-year head coach Ellis Johnson. The Golden Eagles hired Todd Monken from Oklahoma State, which is where Southern Miss found the coach before Johnson, Larry Fedora. Run the same offense, right? Monken’s Eagles are 0-6 and rank toward the bottom of the country in most offensive categories.

3. The UCLA offensive line has suffered three severe injuries in the last two weeks, and the constant substitutions might explain the three false starts against Stanford. Then again, maybe not. The Bruins rank fifth in penalty yards. They average 10 penalties for 77.33 yards per game. Even allowing for the Pac-12’s whistle-happy officials -- three of the top five most-penalized teams play in the Pac-12 -- there’s a trend. UCLA finished dead last in the FBS last year. It is a trademark of second-year coach Jim Mora that he would probably like to do without.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
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The moment is almost here. Florida State-Clemson is the highlight of this weekend's ACC lineup, and of the conference's season. National title implications, Heisman Trophy implications and much more are on the line Saturday night in Death Valley. Here's what to look for in that contest and everywhere else in the league this weekend, which gets a head start tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C.

1. Miami's ball security. The Hurricanes are a top-10 team and 5-0. But an overlooked aspect through this start has been just how sloppy they have been with the ball in recent weeks. Miami has turned the ball over four times in each of its last two contests, and it needs to be sharper offensively coming out of the bye week as it faces a nearly desperate North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeBryn Renner
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina hopes the return of Bryn Renner will help the Tar Heels get closer to their potential.
2. Bryn Renner's return. The UNC quarterback missed the Virginia Tech game two weeks ago because of a foot injury but will play against Miami. Marquise Williams was solid in Renner's spot and could see more time, but the Tar Heels need their veteran presence back as they look to shake the cobwebs from a 1-4 start and emerge from the bye looking more like the team that had Coastal Division title dreams entering Larry Fedora's second season. Their all-black uniforms -- part of their "Zero Dark Thursday" billing -- should be something to watch, too.

3. Terrel Hunt looks for breakout ACC performance. The Syracuse quarterback ran away with the starting job in strong outings against Wagner and Tulane, but he has struggled against Clemson and NC State. He threw for less than 100 yards in each contest, though he did rush for 92 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Wolfpack. Still, Hunt must continue to grow and the offense has to continue to evolve after relying so much on the veteran ground game.

4. Georgia Tech D hopes for turnaround. The Yellow Jackets felt they turned a corner when they shut down UNC late last month to get to 3-0. But they have dropped three in a row since, giving up 38 or more points in each of the last two contests. Of course, throwing a pick-six in each of the last two games doesn't help matters, either, but Georgia Tech desperately needs a stronger performance from its defense to get back on track and be in position for a bowl berth.

5. C.J. Brown back leading Maryland. To be fair, Caleb Rowe played well last week against Virginia, but the Terrapins' offense operates at a different level with Brown in charge. Back from a concussion suffered at FSU, Brown will look to build off his nearly 64 percent completion percentage and help Maryland clinch bowl eligibility against Wake Forest, no small feat for a program that had just six total wins in coach Randy Edsall's first two seasons.

6. Duke's D looks to keep it going. The Blue Devils made a bit of a statement in their 35-7 win over Navy, their second straight game generating pressure up front. They will look to do that again this weekend against a struggling Virginia squad, though ACC offenses have not been kind to Duke in the past year. The Blue Devils have not won a league game since last Oct. 20 and have given up at least 38 points in every ACC contest since then.

7. Virginia looks for playmakers in the passing game. David Watford may have come of age at Maryland in defeat, but he needs some help from his receivers. Tight end Jake McGee leads the Cavaliers with 27 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns, but no receiver has reached the 20-catch mark. Virginia ranks 104th nationally in passing yards and must improve on offense after coming up just short against the Terrapins in a game that was closer than most expected it to be. The offense gave itself a chance at the end and did not give the ball away all game.

8. Can Pitt establish the run? For as much success as the Panthers have had through the air, their ground game has been M.I.A. through the season's first five games, ranking 105th nationally. They have tallied just eight and 23 yards, respectively, in their last two games against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Old Dominion and Navy these next two weeks should provide Pitt nice opportunities to gain some traction in the run game.

9. Famous Jameis' big moment. Everything about Jameis Winston says that he loves the spotlight. But the redshirt freshman sensation has never been tested the way he will Saturday night, as FSU's ACC and national title hopes rest on his right shoulder in the first major test of a career that looks destined for greatness. Can Winston handle the Death Valley atmosphere, and can he exceed the ridiculous expectations that have been placed on him since Week 1? He could be racking up some hardware if he plays anything like he has so far.

10. Spotlight again shines on Death Valley. "College GameDay" is back at Clemson for the second time this season in what is arguably the biggest regular-season game in ACC history. It's another chance for Tajh Boyd to make a Heisman stand, but the onus may ultimately fall on the Tigers' much-improved defense, which has a pass rush that leads the nation in sacks per game. The defense will look to do everything it can to rattle Winston early and solidify this squad as a legitimate national title contender with its second top-5 win of the season.

Miami goes into its Thursday night game at North Carolina with a top-10 ranking, momentum and an edge just about everywhere on the field.

But perhaps coach Al Golden has given his players a little history lesson this week.

Miami last went into Chapel Hill as a top-10 team in 2004 and was a heavy favorite to win. Like this season, North Carolina had a losing record going into the contest. The Canes were supposed to cruise. Instead, Connor Barth made a 42-yard field goal as time expired to beat No. 4 Miami 31-28.

Fans stormed the field. Then-Miami coach Larry Coker called his defense’s inability to stop North Carolina from getting into field goal range “mind-boggling.”

[+] EnlargeAllen Hurns
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsAllen Hurns and Miami will look to hit on some big plays against North Carolina on Thursday night.
That was the last time North Carolina beat a team in the top 10. And that Miami squad is the highest-ranked team Carolina has ever beaten.

So you can bet the Hurricanes will be taking the Tar Heels seriously in a game North Carolina has billed as “Zero Dark Thursday.”

“As I said to the guys all along, records really don’t matter,” Golden told reporters in Miami earlier this week. “Records are talking about the past. We know what type of team we’re going to see Thursday."

Miami will see a team that has not gotten anything going on offense or defense this season. Quarterback Bryn Renner is expected back in the starting lineup, but he has been the least of the problems. The biggest issues that have plagued the Tar Heels? Their young offensive line and an inability to run the football.

Defensively, the Tar Heels have given up way too many yards and way too many big plays, not exactly what you want going against the multi-talented Hurricanes offense. North Carolina has given up 22 plays that have gone 20 or more yards -- 15 on passing plays. Miami, meanwhile, has 23 plays that have gone for 25 or more yards this season.

“You’ve got to stop the run, that’s where it starts, or they’re going to crush you with the run the entire game, and then they’ll take their chances and hit you over the top,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s what they make their living with, making the big plays. We have to make sure we keep the ball in front of us, but you have to have safeties involved in the box to stop the run. We’re going to have to play flawless.”

Senior receiver Allen Hurns has five plays of at least 25 yards, more than any other Miami player. He also owns the top two -- an 80-yard touchdown reception against Savannah State and a 69-yard touchdown reception against Georgia Tech.

Hurns said Miami spent the time leading up to this game working on ball security and getting timing down with quarterback Stephen Morris.

“We want to make sure everybody is on the same page, communicating,” Hurns said. “Then after practice, we watch film together to see things we could possibly see on the field.”

Hurns grew up a big Miami fan, watching the Hurricanes post big victories and go to big bowl games. When he arrived on campus, he dreamed that one day he would be able to do the same. Now, he can proudly say he is on a top-10 team.

But Miami is not looking ahead. At least that is what Golden has preached to his players, to try to keep them focused as they play as favorites rather than underdogs.

“I’ve been through it all with the ups and downs,” Hurns said. “Right now, it feels good because we’re winning each game, but the main thing is that we stay humble and stay focused. We can’t look at everyone’s expectations. We just have to focus on what we have to accomplish and just take it one week at a time.”

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