Tar Heels’ Hot Start Could Signal Power Shift in ACC Coastal

The Tar Heels are off to a hot start after upsetting South Carolina and Miami. Can North Carolina win the ACC Coastal Division this year?
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 07: Javonte Williams #25 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes during the first quarter of their game at Kenan Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Tar Heels are off to a hot start. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell is playing like a senior. North Carolina’s running backs and receivers are wearing down defenses, and the Tar Heels’ defense is making crucial stops. Mack Brown has nearly reached the status of a folk hero in Chapel Hill. Most importantly, North Carolina is off to a 2-0 start after close wins over South Carolina and Miami.

Tar Heels’ Hot Start Could Signal Power Shift in ACC Coastal

The Coastal Division of the ACC is evolving, and the Tar Heels have a realistic chance to move from cellar-dweller to division champion. Brown’s rebuilding job is moving quickly. North Carolina is surging upward, while some of the division’s traditional powers seem headed in a different direction. Miami and Virginia Tech have been the strongest programs in the Coastal, with periods of success at Pittsburgh and Duke. However, after the Tar Heels’ hot start the future appears bright for North Carolina and Virginia, while the other programs fight mediocrity.

The Miami Win was an Instant Classic

The atmosphere was electric in Kenan Stadium Saturday night, as North Carolina hosted Miami. The Hurricanes came in following their season-opening loss to Florida, and many observers expected Miami to bounce back against the Tar Heels. Miami’s defensive front was expected to cause problems for Howell and the rest of the Tar Heels’ offense. However, North Carolina came out flying, with the Air Raid offense in full effect.

The Tar Heels struck twice in the first five minutes. A Noah Ruggles field goal, followed by a 62-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Dyami Brown, gave North Carolina a 10-0 lead. Miami temporarily stopped the bleeding with a Bubba Baxa field goal, but the Tar Heels scored again when Javonte Williams barreled into the end zone from 2 yards out.

Miami got it together in the second quarter, with strong play from quarterback Jarren Williams. Another Baxa field goal and a touchdown pass from Williams to K.J. Osborn brought the Hurricanes back to a 17-13 deficit at halftime. Ruggles added another field goal in the third quarter before Miami responded with another touchdown. The Tar Heels kept a one-point lead after blocking Baxa’s attempt at the extra point.

Heroics During Crunch Time

As the fourth quarter began, Miami had the momentum. Williams hooked up with Will Mallory for an eleven-yard scoring strike with just under five minutes remaining. It felt as if North Carolina’s chances were slipping away. Miami failed on the two-point conversion, and the Tar Heels went back to work on offense, with time becoming a factor.

The Tar Heels moved the ball downfield before Howell was sacked twice. Under do-or-die pressure, North Carolina converted a fourth and 17. Howell then found Dazz Newsome in the corner of the end zone with a minute left. Michael Carter ran for a two-point conversion. This gave the Tar Heels a 28-25 lead. The Hurricanes moved downfield quickly, setting up Baxa for a kick to send the game to overtime. However, he pulled the kick, sealing the victory for North Carolina. With the win, the Tar Heels moved to 2-0 for the first time since the 2014 season.

A Coastal Division in Flux

North Carolina’s win seems to be indicative of what’s trending in the ACC Coastal Division, especially with the victory coming at Miami’s expense. For years, the Hurricanes have been attempting to regain the glory of the past. There have been former Hurricanes players and assistants hired as head coaches in Mark Richt and Manny Diaz, respectively. Flashy turnover chains and touchdown rings have been introduced, but the fact is, the magic is gone. These are simply not the Hurricanes of 30 years ago. Miami has talent, but that doesn’t mean very much when the team is 0-2 for the first time since 1978.

Virginia Tech has been the powerhouse of the Coastal Division for years, but Head Coach Justin Fuente and the Hokies seem to have found the doldrums. Last week’s uninspiring loss at Boston College didn’t do much to conjure up memories of the program’s “Beamer Ball” glory days. Then there’s the other Tech, under first-year coach Geoff Collins. Georgia Tech had several solid years running the antiquated triple-option offense, but Collins is now implementing a new offensive scheme. The Yellow Jackets managed to squeak past South Florida Saturday, but the program is at least two years away from being a factor once again in the ACC.

Duke is well-coached under David Cutcliffe, but the Blue Devils are replacing a quarterback after Daniel Jones left for the NFL. Cutcliffe turned Duke’s football fortunes around but has had to rely on his players overachieving. It’s just hard to recruit top-level football talent to Duke when the majority of the school’s fans don’t care about football. Pittsburgh managed to reach the ACC Championship Game last season, before being blown out by Clemson. The Panthers lost several offensive weapons after last season, and the program is basically in rebuilding mode.

Tar Heels and Wahoos are on the Rise

When Bronco Mendenhall arrived at Virginia, the Cavaliers were the doormat of the Coastal Division. Fast-forward three years, and the program’s fortunes have changed, with two straight bowl appearances and two wins to start the current season. North Carolina and Virginia will renew “The South’s Oldest Rivalry” on the first Saturday in November. This is a game that could determine the winner of the Coastal Division.

North Carolina is slated to play five straight games against Coastal Division opponents, beginning with a trip to Georgia Tech in early October. If they can avoid the injury bug and continue to get it done in fourth-quarter dogfights, there’s no reason to think the Tar Heels won’t have a chance to win the Coastal side of the ACC.

A Look Ahead at Next Week

North Carolina won’t have long to savor its upset of Miami. The Tar Heels travel to Winston-Salem Friday to take on Wake Forest at 6 p.m. The Demon Deacons have a potent offense, led by quarterback Jamie Newman and several very good receivers. One of Newman’s favorite targets is Sage Surratt, brother of North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt. Wake’s defense is not quite as impressive. The Deacons gave up nearly 600 yards of offense in the season opener against Utah State. Rice moved the ball well against Wake this past week. Howell and the Tar Heels’ running backs should all have chances to put up some big numbers Friday night.

The key for North Carolina will be the play of the secondary. Newman will be looking for his talented receivers early and often; the Tar Heels’ defensive backs will have to respond as they did in the first two games.

Brown’s second tenure in Chapel Hill is off to a great beginning. The Tar Heels have to keep up the intensity and continue to get strong fourth-quarter performances. If they do, this season could get really exciting when November arrives.

 

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