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How can the Tar Heels help maintain the ACC’s football dominance?

The ACC is at the top of college football right now. The next step for UNC and the conference is staying there.

NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As the ACC Media Days began, there was one constant no matter which coach was being represented: It’s time to recognize that the ACC is, for the time speaking, the best conference in college football. The nonsense that is SEC apologism is being exposed, and now that the ACC boasts the reigning national champions, the reigning Heisman trophy winner, and a 10-4 record against the SEC, there isn’t really a question about which conference is superior anymore. Bill Connelly’s S&P+, a more advanced analytic tool, has the matchup as a virtual tie, but as Connelly himself acknowledges, you can’t argue with wins, and, more importantly, a championship.

While being the best conference in football might start at the top, the best conference also has to be deep. The man at the top of the conference right now, Dabo Swinney, said as much at ACC Media Days, linked above:

This is not a top-heavy league. This is a deep league.

Three teams out of 14 in the ACC had overall losing records. In the SEC, that number was five. The ACC champions, Clemson, had a conference loss and four other games against conference foes that were decided by one possession. That’s half their games against ACC opponents that were close. The SEC champions, Alabama, never lost in conference and had just one game against a conference opponent that was decided by fewer than 10 points. One of these conferences is deeper than the other. If you need further convincing, the SEC posted a mediocre 6-6 bowl game record, while the ACC went 8-3.

So what is UNC’s role in this evolution? Nobody is calling the Tar Heels among college football’s elite, though they may have sniffed that air in 2015 before a botched offside call. What they have been, though, is consistent on a season scale. Since Larry Fedora took over in 2012, the Tar Heels have won six or more games in every season, which has qualified them for bowl games in every one of those years besides 2012, when the team was ineligible. Fedora has never had an ACC record under 0.500, and finally notched a marquee win in 2016 with UNC’s 37-35 defeat of Florida State, establishing after several close losses (and a botched offside call) that UNC could hang with the ACC’s top talent.

In this time, UNC has had several high-profile draft picks, including 2013’s first running back (Giovani Bernard) and 2017’s first quarterback, Mitch Trubisky. While the Heels haven’t been one of the teams bringing the ACC into the national spotlight, they have been one of the teams in the background, succeeding enough to the point where when people look beyond the top of the conference, they see teams like UNC and can’t call the ACC top-heavy.

While that may have been enough for the conference to get to this point, it won’t be enough to stay there. The SEC earned the reputation that it did through sustained excellence. Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville are great, but they can’t be relied on to carry the conference, or the ACC will fall just like the SEC has (relatively). So, there are a few things that North Carolina needs to do in order to help the ACC stay at the top, and start putting itself in the conversation for being near the best of the best.

  • Start winning winnable big games

While Larry Fedora has gotten his team to a bowl-eligible record every year that he has been at UNC, his record in bowl games is a less-than-stellar 1-3, including three straight losses. While UNC was at times among the ACC’s best in 2016, their fading down the stretch ended in being one of only three teams in the conference to lose their bowl game, a slight black mark on the conference’s season. It was a close loss marred by uncharacteristic bad decisions at the quarterback position and mistakes at the usually reliable receiver positions, and could easily have been a win with cleaner play.

Even beyond bowl games, UNC has made an unfortunate habit at times of not always playing up to the moment and, even if they do for most of the game, have had a problem finishing winnable games against good competition. The 2013 Zero Dark Thursday game against Miami, the 2014 Notre Dame and Miami games, the 2015 ACC Championship against Clemson (while the offside call didn’t help, the team did not play well for the first half of that game), season openers against South Carolina and Georgia the past two years, and, perhaps most frustratingly, rivalry games against Duke (2013, 2016) and NC State (2014, 2016) all come to mind when one thinks of big-game losses in the Fedora era.

One win at Florida State, even if it was a great win, doesn’t erase all this. UNC needs to start turning heads when it gets the chance, and that means winning games when they have an audience. The time is past for moral victories.

  • Keep recruiting at a high level

Even though UNC ended up missing on Zamir White, UNC’s class of 2018 might be one of its best ever after the commitment of Jordyn Adams. Fedora has done an admirable job recruiting under the cloud of NCAA nonsense, dealing with scholarship reductions, scare tactics, and being right next to Clemson, and the success of the latest NFL Draft class (six draft picks, tied with Clemson) should only increase recruits’ interest in the program.

Fedora and his staff need to take advantage of that momentum. Much of this will be done on the field, as UNC needs to prove that the talent development that culminated last year was not a fluke by maintaining a steady NFL and NFL Draft presence. This year, players such as MJ Stewart, Bentley Spain, and Austin Proehl will have the spotlight, which is a good start, but it’s important to strike while the iron is hot. Fedora has made important inroads into several areas in the Southeastern United States. It’s important that those don’t go away, and that the 2018 class does not become an anomaly.

  • Maintain a good cross-division record

One of the reasons for the SEC’s fall from dominance is its total lack of divisional parity. Between the SEC West and SEC East, the SEC West is probably the best individual division (though the ACC did go 4-1 against the SECW), but the East is so bad that it pulls the entire conference down.

There are some who believe that the Atlantic Division of the ACC is similarly superior to the Coastal Division. While the difference isn’t nearly as stark as that between the East and West, it does exist. The total S&P+ difference between the ACC-A and ACC-C was 3.2, while the same difference for the SEC-E and SEC-W was 12.3. Again, one of these leagues is deeper than the other.

UNC only plays two games against the Atlantic every year, and one of those games is always against NCSU. It is imperative that UNC maintains a neutral-to-positive record in these games (Fedora’s record against the Atlantic is currently 5-5), and, as mentioned before, some more wins over marquee opponents wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Doing this will be how to ensure that one division doesn’t completely overtake the other, and even if other Coastal teams don’t follow suit, it can be how UNC puts itself in the conversation at the top instead of merely supporting from the middle.