CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — 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.'"
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