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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina has optimism from a strong finish and motivation from watching a rival's surprise trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
And that has the Tar Heels talking about making their own run in the wide-open Coastal Division.
"Once you've put in so much work, you really can feel what you're working toward is actually a reality," linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. "All the work we've put in, we feel like we deserve something out of it."
The Tar Heels (7-6, 4-4 ACC) say they have the players to keep coach Larry Fedora's no-huddle offense humming, the experience to make an up-and-down defense show some consistency and a game-changing special teams performer in punt returner Ryan Switzer.
Is it enough to win a division with no clear favorite? The Tar Heels think so, citing Duke's division title last year with a bit of "Why not us?" mentality.
"It seems more attainable than it ever has since I've been here," offensive guard Landon Turner said. "I think we have the tools. We just have to put it to use."
The Tar Heels have finished at least .500 in league play each year under Fedora, with his first team finishing tied atop the division but missing a trip to the ACC title game due to NCAA sanctions. Last year's group clawed back from a 1-5 start and beat Cincinnati in a Belk Bowl rout.
Quarterback Marquise Williams returns as a run-pass threat, though he is fighting to keep the starting job against redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. Receiver Quinshad Davis had 10 touchdown catches, while Switzer tied an NCAA single-season record with five punts returns for touchdowns as a freshman.
Freshmen and sophomores scored 46 of UNC's 55 touchdowns last year, a promising sign for the season that begins Aug. 30 against Liberty.
"Nobody's going to give us respect until we earn respect," Williams said. "That's what we've been practicing. I've been telling the guys, 'Don't think about something little. Think about the big things. Think about the ACC championship. Think about going and playing in the Orange Bowl.'"
Here are five things to watch for the Tar Heels this season:
QB PLAY: Williams began last season with spot duty, then gradually earned a timeshare with Bryn Renner before taking over when Renner was lost to injury. A two-QB system could take shape again. While Williams' experience gives him an edge on Trubisky, Fedora has proven willing to use two passers and said Monday the race is still ongoing.
SWITZER'S GROWTH: Can Switzer bring his game-changing plays to the offense? The sophomore had 32 catches for 341 yards and three scores as a receiver last year, but Fedora is expecting a leap forward. "I think people are waiting to see if I can add on to (the punt returns) offensively," Switzer said. "It hasn't been a problem with me so far."
UP FRONT: The offensive line lost tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine to the NFL. Now there are seven freshmen or sophomores on the preseason depth chart for a group that must open holes for returning tailback T.J. Logan and touted recruit Elijah Hood. "We're all committed to working hard and we want to prove people wrong," sophomore center Lucas Crowley said, "that the O-line is not the weak point."
DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: UNC had the league's worst run defense and generated just 20 takeaways, tied for second lowest in the league. The low point was giving up 55 points and 603 yards in a lopsided loss to East Carolina. Fedora expects improvement in the third year in the 4-2-5 system. "They don't have to think about it anymore," he said. "They can react."
COASTAL FOES: If the Tar Heels want to win the division, they could start by figuring out how to beat Georgia Tech and Duke. Fedora is 0-4 against those division opponents. The Blue Devils have won two close meetings, while the Yellow Jackets have beaten UNC for five straight years. Georgia Tech plays at UNC on Oct. 18 while the Tar Heels travel to Duke on Nov. 20.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap