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2013 ACC Previews: North Carolina

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North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner is a big reason why the Tar Heels could win the ACC's Coastal Division in 2013. Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images.
North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner is a big reason why the Tar Heels could win the ACC's Coastal Division in 2013. Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images.

As the college football season draws closer it is time to take a look at each team in the ACC and their outlook for 2013. We will look at what to expect from your favorite team and what it will take for 2013 to be a success. We will follow the predicted finishing order released during ACC media day, alternating between the Coastal and Atlantic Division. Next up is North Carolina.

Head Coach: Larry Fedora (second season)

Last Season: The Tar Heels would have represented the Coastal Division in the title game had it not been for their postseason ban. UNC finished 8-4 — including wins over Virginia Tech and Miami — despite losing one-possession games to Wake Forrest, Duke and Louisville. Fedora’s offense worked wonders: UNC ranked eighth in the country at 40.6 points per game. The clouds from the last three years have lifted and the Tar Heels seem primed for a big season.  

Key Losses: Giovanni Bernard was one of the most consistent running backs in the country last year and one of the ACC’s dynamic playmakers. Jonathan Cooper was selected in the Top 10 of April’s draft — an excellent achievement for a guard. Fellow offensive lineman Travis Bond and Brennan Williams also were selected in the later rounds. Linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams were the heart of the defense last year and both have moved on.

What To Expect On Offense: Without Bernard, quarterback Bryn Renner likely will shoulder more of the load offensively, and that is not a bad thing. Renner was comfortable in an up-tempo offense and has a pair of exciting talents in receiver Quinshad Davis (61 catches for 766 yards as a freshman) and tight end Eric Ebron. Renner nearly cut his interceptions in half from 2011 (13) to 2012 (seven) despite attempting 72 more passes. Despite the departure of Bernard, A.J. Blue and Romar Morris should provide enough relief in the running game to move the chains. Left tackle James Hurst is one of the best offensive linemen in the country and is a first-round NFL Draft prospect.

What To Expect On Defense: The main reason why the Tar Heels failed to crack the 10-win mark a year ago was their inability to get off the field in crucial situations. Seven starters return to a team that failed to adapt effectively to the 4-2-5 scheme implemented by Fedora and his staff. This is more of a personnel thing than anything else, and it might take a few seasons of recruiting to iron out. Kareem Martin and Shakeel Rashad will be tasked with applying pressure on the quarterback.

The secondary has a lot of talent — four starters return — but has to be fused into one cohesive unit if the Tar Heels want to crash the BCS party. Safety Tre Boston figures to be one of the best defensive backs in the country this term. Tim Scott, Jabari Price, Sam Smiley and Brandon Ellerbe — who missed last season due to injury — round out the group. Darien Rankin, who picked off three passes as a sophomore, also will be in the mix for playing time.

Breakout Star: Tommy Heffernan.

The junior linebacker had 73 tackles and three sacks in nine starts and should cement his role as weakside linebacker in North Carolina’s 4-2-5 scheme. A former walk-on, Heffernan redshirted as a freshman and burst onto the scene during the last two seasons. His sack of Ryan Williams in the final seconds helped preserve an 18-14 victory over Miami.

Big Games: The Tar Heels travel to South Carolina to open the season in a nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain type of game. It is a non-conference game — UNC doesn’t figure to be in the national title hunt — meaning a loss wouldn’t be catastrophic to the rest of its season. On the other hand, the Tar Heels can help out the entire ACC with a good showing against the Gamecocks and an upset victory would be a program-defining win. Watch out for the Hurst-Jadevon Clowney matchup in that one; it should be a fascinating battle.

In order to capture the Coastal Division, UNC must survive an early stretch of the season that concludes with back-to-back games with Virginia Tech and Miami in October. North Carolina travels to Georgia Tech on Sept. 21 looking to avenge last season’s bizarre 68-50 defeat — its fourth in five years against Paul Johnson.

Outlook:  The Coastal Division always is up for grabs, and this year is no different. With Renner leading an explosive offense, the Tar Heels will be in every game. Among the four main contenders of the division, UNC appears to have the fewest weaknesses. If they can avoid the monumental upsets that plagued them last season (Wake Forrest, Duke), an appearance in Charlotte is a realistic possibility.

Predicted Record: 9-3, ACC Coastal champions.