Contender or pretender: North Carolina


If you’re just joining us, this series looks at the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. Florida State and Clemson are not included because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders.

Let's move on to the Coastal Division, which is completely wide open headed into 2013. Expect there to be many more contenders out of this division. Let's start with North Carolina, which had the best overall record in the Coastal last season at 8-4. Can the Tar Heels contend now that they are eligible for the postseason?

Why they're a contender: North Carolina returns one of the top passers in the league in Bryn Renner, who threw for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions a year ago. He has some talent to throw to, from Sean Tapley to Eric Ebron to T.J. Thorpe to Quinshad Davis, who emerged in the second half of the season. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris should help ease the loss of Giovani Bernard. And James Hurst returns as one of the best tackles in the nation to help mitigate the loss of Jonathan Cooper. The Tar Heels were one of the most explosive offenses in the ACC last year, ranking just behind Clemson. With Renner back and another year in the Larry Fedora hurry-up spread system, the hope is that this team will be even better on offense despite losing some of its best players.

Why they're a pretender: As mentioned above, North Carolina has to replace Bernard and Cooper, the two top players on offense from a year ago. Bernard was more than just a running back. He was the best all-purpose player in the ACC, and they are going to have to rely on multiple players to reproduce his production. Can Romar and Blue be as effective? Who replaces Bernard in the return game? Three starters are gone on the offensive line -- two guards and a tackle. Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson or sophomore Landon Turner are vying to replace Cooper, guys with little playing experience. So the potential for some growing pains exists, which could hamper Renner and the run game. Defensively, North Carolina loses its top two players off an inconsistent group from a year ago, with Sylvester Williams (13.5 tackles for loss) and Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 18.5 for loss) gone.

Final verdict: Contender. North Carolina has to replace some outstanding All-ACC players. But the Tar Heels do return Renner to lead the offense, which should be more fine-tuned in Year 2 under Fedora. So should the defense, which showed flashes at times but should have a much better understanding of what is expected in this scheme. Even with Bernard and Cooper gone, it is tough to count out a team with a senior quarterback capable of throwing for 3,500 yards in an offense designed to rack up yards and points.

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