UNC tries to stop revolving door atop division
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina coach Larry Fedora knows all about the unpredictable nature of the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division after his Tar Heels made a surprise climb to the top last season.
Staying there? Now that will be tough based on the division's recent run.
While league heavyweights Clemson and Florida State just trade the Atlantic Division crown back and forth, the Coastal keeps making a mess of all the preseason expectations. There hasn't been a repeat division champion since 2011, while the past three champs were all teams picked to finish fifth or worse in the seven-team field.
Now it's the Tar Heels' turn to try to become the first division team to repeat as champion since Virginia Tech did it in 2010-11.
"We're still working exactly the same, whether people are talking about us or not," Fedora said Thursday during the ACC Kickoff preseason media days. "That's never been the motivating factor anyway, so whether you pick us first, you pick us last, it doesn't really matter."
The ACC will release the media's preseason picks next week. And the Tar Heels (11-3) will be a favorite after a season that saw them match the program record for wins, post their first 8-0 ACC mark and even pop into the top 10 of The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since Mack Brown's final season before leaving for Texas.
UNC went on to lose to top-ranked Clemson 45-37 in the ACC championship game, but returns plenty of talent on offense with tailback Elijah Hood along with receivers Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins two years removed from a 6-7 season.
"Offseason workouts have amped up a little bit because we're not dwelling on a six-win season or a seven-win season," Switzer said. "We had an 11-win season and the opportunity to have even more wins is in front of us, which gets us a lot more pumped up and get us a lot more motivated."
Still, things have rarely gone to plan in the Coastal of late.
In 2013, Duke went from being picked to finish last to winning the division as the defining moment in David Cutcliffe's rebuilding of a long-woeful program. A year later, Georgia Tech won the division after being picked to finish fifth in preseason.
Miami was picked to win the Coastal both times but went just 8-8 over those two years.
And last season, the Yellow Jackets were picked to repeat as division champ only to finish last at 1-7 as the Tar Heels surprised everyone after being picked fifth.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson summed it up when asked by a reporter about the Yellow Jackets likely having lower preseason expectations.
"Well, we've only been picked to win the thing one time and we finished last," Johnson said. "So you guys don't have a very good track record."
One thing is certain: there's plenty of experience back throughout the division in 2016. Every team has at least six returning starters on offense — the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes each boast nine — with five of the seven returning their starting quarterback.
On the defensive side, six of the seven teams have at least six returning defensive starters led by Pittsburgh, which returns eight a year after finishing as division runner-up to UNC.
On top of that, there's a new variable this year with roughly half the division teams introducing new coaches: Mark Richt at Miami, Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia and Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech.
No one in Charlotte is pretending to know what will happen, either.
"I think it's exciting," Duke all-conference specialist DeVon Edwards said. "You never know what you're going to get on that Saturday."
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