UNC's Davis, Georgia Tech's Johnson ahead of schedule

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

North Carolina linebacker Mark Paschal can still remember the first team meeting coach Butch Davis walked into two years ago when he took the job.

"I saw the whole meeting room sit up in their seats when he walked in," said Paschal, who was a rising junior at the time. "That kind of hit home. He brings a presence into a meeting and every room he walks into."

There was a similar feeling at Georgia Tech when Paul Johnson arrived last December.

"Coach Johnson, once he got here, he changed the atmosphere on campus," B-back Jonathan Dwyer said. "Everybody is behind him. We're behind him as well. He's a great man. Off the field, he's a jokester. We always have fun with him. On the field he's real serious. He's all about business. He loves to win and we're trying to win those games for him."

In a short amount of time, both Davis and Johnson have made their teams contenders for the Coastal Division title. Davis, in just his second season, is bowl eligible, as is Johnson, who implemented a new offense, a new defense and had to overcome an abundance of youth and injuries in his first season. North Carolina and Georgia Tech are ranked No. 19 and No. 20, respectively, in this week's BCS standings. The two well-respected coaches will face each other on Saturday, and both need the win to stay in the division race. Coincidentally, both teams have losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech.

"No. 1, they're both good coaches, and No. 2 they both came in there with a plan," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose Hokies were picked to win the division this season. "They knew what they wanted to do. It's certainly good. Right now, you look at this ACC race and there are a lot of teams that have a chance. That's good for the league. I've said many times, you look at this league and look at the coaches, there are some really good coaches in this league."

With Florida State and Miami no longer the dominant programs they once were, and the league race being as wide open as many coaches in it have seen, the ACC is looking for an identity. Entering this season, it was Clemson, but those expectations crashed quickly. Saturday's game could foreshadow two of the stronger programs in the league's future.

"We're both young teams," Dwyer said. "We're very up and coming. The outcome of this game is going to show how competitive this game is going to be for four or five more years to come because there are good recruiting classes. It's going to be more good games against them year after year."

Paschal, a native of Charlotte, has been waiting for a turnaround at Carolina. His father, Doug, played at UNC from 1976-79. His mother, Jeanne, is also a Carolina grad. But Paschal hasn't been part of a winning season until now.

"I've had Carolina in my blood since I can remember," Paschal said. "It's so exciting to be a part of something like this, turn the corner. I've struggled, the team has struggled the past couple of years here since I've been here. To be a senior, looking back on the things we've had to endure, it's nice to see things starting to pan out for us."

Last year, the Tar Heels won four games, but six of their eight losses were by a touchdown or less. The players attribute taking the next step this season to Davis. They are bowl eligible for the first time since 2004, and they've done it despite losing both their starting quarterback and top playmaker to injuries.

"Coach Davis is a meticulous guy who works hard," said defensive tackle Marvin Austin. "The team is basically a reflection of your head coach. That just shows you the type of work that he's putting in and the assistant coaches and the coaching staff he has assembled. The sky's the limit. We can be as good as we want to be."

Davis said there are several important steps when building a program, including hiring the right assistants.

"You need other ambassadors, guys meeting with players, recruiting players, talking to players, carrying the same messages, the same rallies and battle cries every single week about what defines us as a football program," Davis said. "Certainly the quicker the faster the players you inherit buy into the new ways that you're doing things, that certainly gives you a chance to expedite it and then obviously recruiting every year ... you're always having to bring new players in and they've got to assimilate into the program. The willingness of our players to do what it takes, to put you in a position to win is extraordinarily important."

Johnson got some help from his seniors in making sure everyone was on the same page.

Georgia Tech defensive tackle Darryl Richard said the seniors knew the talent they had on the roster, and "either you were going to be with us or you need to get the hell out."

"When coach Johnson first came in, he said it's a small difference between good and great," Richard said. "We really thought we were able to be a great team."

They were expected to be great, though. Not this season.

Georgia Tech was picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division, and much of that can be attributed to the skepticism some had about whether Johnson's triple-option offense would work in a BCS conference. Lost in the hoopla about his offense was the fact he also hired a new defensive coordinator.

"Paul Johnson has done a great job," Davis said. "He's gone in and ... to go in there and totally, dramatically change schematically from Chan Gailey's offense to the offense he believes in that he runs, and have the success that they're doing, that is an outstanding coaching job."

Johnson attributed his immediate success to his players.

"Our kids have bought into what we're trying to ask them to do," Johnson said. "They've fought and played hard. We've won a lot of close games. ... They've just continued to believe and play hard, and when you play hard, sometimes good things happen."