Fedora, Tar Heels aim to repeat as ACC division champion
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina coach Larry Fedora spent the past two seasons saying it was time for his Tar Heels to compete for an Atlantic Coast Conference division title.
Now that his Tar Heels have won one, the next step is winning an ACC championship and topping a season in which his team matched a program record for wins.
''You can't do it every once in a while,'' Fedora said of winning the Coastal Division and reaching the ACC title game. ''You need to be there. We need to get back in that game and play whoever's going to be in it. . We need to be there to keep progressing the way we want.''
High expectations follow an 11-win season that included an 8-0 run through the ACC behind a high-scoring offense that provided enough cover for a bend-but-don't-break defense. North Carolina (11-3) lost two shootouts to end the season, first against then-No. 1 Clemson in the ACC title game and against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Along the way, the Tar Heels reached the top 10 for the first time since 1997.
They enter this year as the preseason division favorite.
''We worked extremely hard last year and I think guys finally understand how that translates into success on the field,'' returning all-ACC tailback Elijah Hood said. ''Everyone's trying to do a little bit more, trying to push themselves to be a little bit better. If everyone does that the team as a whole is just going to be better.''
Here are things to know about North Carolina for the 2016 season:
The Tar Heels averaged school records of 40.7 points and 486.9 yards last year, highlighted by scoring 125 points combined against Miami and Duke in blowout division wins. The fast-paced attack has been the calling card for the Tar Heels' first four seasons under Fedora, and the return of Hood along with receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins give new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky plenty of weapons.
''I believe we have the talent to be better than our numbers said we were last year,'' Fedora said.
The defense went from record-setting bad in 2014 to adequate in its first season under defensive coordinator and former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. And that's really all it took for the Tar Heels to make a leap. North Carolina allowed 24.5 points and 435.9 yards last year, an improvement of about 15 points and 60 yards per game. It loses linebacker leaders Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad, but boasts a strong back end with cornerbacks Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart.
The Tar Heels have a measuring-stick opener when they travel to Atlanta to face Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 3. Georgia has a new coach in Kirby Smart, so Fedora's staff will be guessing on exactly what to expect. North Carolina is looking for its first win against a Southeastern Conference opponent since beating Tennessee in the Music City Bowl to end the 2010 season. Winning that game would be a big credibility boost nationally for Fedora's program.
The Tar Heels have two big ACC road games that stand out: at Atlantic Division power Florida State on Oct. 1 followed two weeks later by a trip to preseason Coastal No. 2 pick Miami, led by new coach Mark Richt and quarterback Brad Kaaya.
The Coastal Division hasn't had a repeat champion since 2011. The Tar Heels appear positioned to buck that trend and look strong for nine or 10 wins.
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