And no one give me grief for using the word chic.
It really started with Joe Ovies at 850 during the ACC Kickoff when he proclaimed that UNC would shock the world and win the Coastal Division. Since then the idea that UNC could be in Tampa in early December has become the rather stylish darkhorse pick among the media who wants to get ahead of the curve and look like freaking savants for call this particular shot. This was a topic of discussion of Primetime with the Packman when Lou Holtz raised the possibility of a Wake Forest-North Carolina ACC title game. This was immediately derided as a game that would be poorly attended. Good one fellas, UNC and WF fans have not heard that one before.
Anyway the latest to jump on the UNC bandwagon is ESPN's Mark Schlabach who thinks Clemson will not win the ACC depsite being the realistic favorite:
1. Clemson won't win the ACC.
The Tigers are loaded at the skill positions. Cullen Harper is the best quarterback in the ACC. Tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller are two of the best runners in the country. Aaron Kelly is the best pass-catcher in the league. But Clemson might start two or even three freshmen on the offensive line, which isn't a good thing, and its linebacker corps is very thin. Alabama will beat the Tigers in the Georgia Dome in the opener, and North Carolina or Wake Forest will win the ACC.
I find it humorous that Schlabach can sit here and point out weakness after weakness in Clemson and the Tigers are still the odds on favorite. Why? Because the ACC is average at best as a football conference. UNC being tabbed to win the Coastal is a good thing but not a good thing at the same time if you catch my meaning. The division is weak and the conference overall is weak, at least it is when you look at them on paper. Saying UNC can win the ACC, while a tremendous accomplishment and something we could slap the folks in Raleigh upside the head with for a little bit, would likely set up a drubbing in the Orange Bowl by a team from a better conference. Not that I would complain, it sure as heck beats the way things were two years ago.
Then again, the last 10 years have made me fairly jaded so it will take something like beating Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill to fully convince me this team is ready to turn the corner. The truth about preseason predictions is they are based on known commodities and the more of those you have the better the media ranks you. This especially true when you talk about players at the skill positions and UNC has those in spades. Assuming TJ Yates is healthy and he can hit the trio of great receivers with any accuracy UNC looks to be very good on offense. There are questions about the offensive line and running game but they seem to be receding somewhat the longer UNC practices. The bottom line is if you have a stable QB situation and some defined weapons on offense coupled with a decent defense, chances are you can make some noise in a conference like the ACC which is in a state of chaotic mediocrity.
This is what makes the non-conference slate very, very important. JP Giglio posted a list of ten ACC games that are extremely important for the image of the conference and for the teams cited. UNC appears on the list twice:
5 ) UNC @ Rutgers
Sept. 11: Before Greg Schiano, Rutgers was the Duke of the Big East. Twenty-six wins since 2004 and three consecutive bowl trips have changed the Scarlet Knights' fortune (and made Schiano a fortune).
Beating Rutgers doesn't make a season, as Maryland proved in 2007, but this game is huge for UNC, and by proxy, the ACC. See when UNC's good/great it's good for the ACC. The only way UNC is going to be the "sleeper" of this college football season is if they win games like this, especially early in the season to gain confidence.
UNC needs to win games on the road, period, to become a top 20 football program. That hasn't consistently happened, and only once outside the state of North Carolina, since Mack Brown left.
8 ) UConn @ UNC
Oct. 4: UConn actually tied West Virginia for the Big East title in 2007. The Huskies also gave Wake everything it wanted in the Tire Bowl. Yet, UNC fan assumes this is an automatic W. Why?
UConn has 17 starters back from last year's 9-4 team, including quarterback Tyler Lorenzen.
This is also a lousy spot on the schedule for UNC. The week before, Butch Davis makes his first trip back to Miami and the following week Notre Dame comes to Chapel Hill.
This is the very definition of a trap game for UNC and exactly the kind of game teams still learning how to win tend to lose.
If the Heels beat Rutgers, they'll be set up for at least an eight-win season. If not, it's the same old struggle to get to six wins.
What happens in these two games and against Notre Dame will indicate whether UNC is a good team or a good ACC team. In reality, if UNC cannot at least handle these three opponents, then the chances they handle VT or Miami are not good either. The game at Rutgers could set the tone for the Heels though. If they can finally kill that losing streak outside of North Carolina it should inspire confidence with this young squad and set the wheels in motion for the kind of season the darkhorse bandwagon in banking on.
On a personal note, I do have a situation that lends credence to the idea UNC will make it to Tampa on December 6th. I will at Disney that whole week and likely traveling back to NC on that day. UNC has not won an ACC title since 1981 and the day they possibly have a chance to break that 27 year drought I will be in a car driving back from Florida missing it. Yeah, that probably means UNC will win the Coastal.