After UNC’s shocking upset of South Carolina over Labor Day weekend, the team and the fanbase now turn to the Tar Heel’s first home game of the season - a conference bout against Miami on Saturday night in Chapel Hill.
It is the first home game of the Mack Brown era, a night game and a sold-out affair – all ingredients that will surely lead to an absolutely electric environment in Chapel Hill. But maybe the biggest (and most underrated) aspect of this game is its implications on UNC’s chances at winning the Coastal Division.
Unlike in basketball, the ACC splits its football teams up into two divisions and lets them compete for a chance to go to the ACC Championship game in Charlotte. The Atlantic and Coastal division representatives then play for an ACC Championship, and potentially, a chance to get into the College Football Playoff. If UNC wants to ultimately win a national championship, the stepping stones are pretty clearly laid out – win the Coastal Division, win an ACC Championship and then see what happens in the College Football Playoff.
It’s ludicrous to think that far ahead for the Tar Heel football program, but Mack Brown has talked about winning a national championship in Chapel Hill down the road. And it would be a huge accomplishment for UNC to win the Coastal Division in this season or any of Mack Brown’s tenure as the head football coach at North Carolina.
I think UNC, picked to finish second to last in the Coastal Division by the media this offseason, has a chance at nabbing the Coastal crown in 2019. This argument rests on two key points.
The Coastal Division is really bad and there is no real favorite this season.
It’s really hard to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division if you are not Clemson or Florida State. Since 2005, when the ACC divided into two divisions and began holding an ACC Championship Game, Clemson has won seven Atlantic Division titles (including the last four) and Florida State has won six. Wake Forest won the Atlantic Division way back in 2006, but other than that, it’s been all Tigers and Seminoles at the top.
The same is not true in the Coastal Division.
The ACC Coastal Division has been light on dominant programs and heavy in chaos. Last season, the Pittsburgh Panthers won the Coastal Division while finishing the season with a 7-7 overall record. They went 6-2 in the conference and were beaten by the last-place team, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
In 2017, Miami won the Coastal with a 7-1 record and finished the year ranked 13th in the AP Poll. They were one of two Coastal teams that were ranked by season’s end.
In 2016, Virginia Tech won the Coastal with a 6-2 record and finished as the only ranked team in the division.
In 2015, North Carolina went 8-0 and finished the season ranked 15th.
In 2014, it was Georgia Tech who took the Coastal crown and finished the season ranked 8th overall. The Yellow Jackets had a 6-2 ACC record and won 11 games overall on the season.
In 2013, the Duke Blue Devils (10-4 overall, 6-2 ACC) won the right to face eventual national champion Florida State for the ACC Championship. The Blue Devils finished the season ranked 23rd in the AP Poll.
And, in 2012, Georgia Tech, Miami and UNC tied for the Coastal championship with a 5-3 conference record. None of those teams finished the season ranked.
If Virginia, the favorites in the division, win it this year, the Coastal will have had seven different champions in the last seven seasons.
All of this chaos works in UNC’s favor. They don’t have to upset Clemson’s dynastic and consistent tear through the ACC Atlantic Division – the Tar Heels have to just string a couple of good performances together in conference play.
The game against Miami this weekend is key, as the Hurricanes look to be one of the favorites in the division this season. That standing isn’t shaken even after a rough opening loss to the SEC’s Florida Gators. But the Tar Heels get Miami at home this weekend and Kenan Stadium should provide a massive home-field advantage. UNC also plays Virginia, the other favorite, at home on November 2nd.
A major strike against North Carolina is that they do have to play Clemson as their crossover opponent this year, which hurts. The other team in the Coastal with that crossover game is Georgia Tech, which lost that game 14-52 last season and don’t figure to be a contender in the division anyways. But, the overall point here is that historically, the Coastal has been wide open. This year is no different.
2. North Carolina has more talent on the roster than people realize
In the last two seasons, UNC has gone 3-9 and 2-9. But those win-loss records do a poor job of conveying the high level of talent that accumulated on the roster during those past two seasons. Essentially, Mack Brown inherited a program whose cupboards were far from bare.
In 247Sports’ 2019 College Football Team Talent Composite rankings, UNC ranks 28th overall and 4th in the ACC. The only team in the Coastal higher than the Tar Heels is Miami (3rd overall). Division favorite Virginia is 11th in the ACC and 59th overall.
Now, talent isn’t everything – Florida State is first in the ACC and they just lost to Boise State. But UNC’s high ranking illustrates the point that the Tar Heels do have a lot of highly-rated recruits sprinkled throughout their roster.
The advanced stats also are kinder to UNC than you’d think. In ESPN’s Football Power Index, and more specifically, their Team Efficiencies section, UNC’s defense is given a rating of 84.9. That specific number means nothing to you or me, but it does rank as the third-highest in the ACC (behind Clemson and Syracuse). UNC’s offense is middle of the pack and its special teams ranking is very low, currently sitting at 112th in the country. It is reasonable to expect lots of growth from the offense as it continues to learn Phil Longo’s new system and reasonable to expect some growth from UNC’s young special teams group.
UNC is starting a four-star quarterback as well. In the last two seasons, UNC has really struggled with finding consistently good quarterback play. Now that Sam Howell has taken over the starting job, he could be a huge boost to the program by elevating the play of everyone around him. Look at some of the passes he threw in the red zone last weekend - he allowed players like Dyami Brown and Beau Corrales to thrive and make plays for the Tar Heels.
All this adds up to a roster that could catch some teams off guard. This isn’t a barren roster of a program that has won only five games in the past two seasons. Instead, UNC has a group of talented players who are starting to believe in themselves after an offseason of uplift from Mack Brown and after that win over South Carolina. Teams like that can be dangerous to play against.
UNC was picked to finish second to last in the Coastal Division in 2019. Vegas echoed the media’s sentiment, giving the Tar Heels and Louisville the lowest odds to win the ACC Championship among the conferences’ 14 teams. But despite those long odds, UNC has the potential to put together a run at the Coastal Division championship.
Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill against Miami will give everyone a much clearer view of just how good this UNC team can be. If the Tar Heels pull off another upset, expect Vegas and the media to reset their expectations for this North Carolina team. And, maybe the pundits will look back on UNC’s wins over South Carolina and Miami and see they shouldn’t have been looked at as upsets at all.
Header photo by Smith Hardy