Media members who spend their days talking and writing about ACC football gathered here at the ACC Kickoff the past two days, hours filled with the bluster of hype and predictable preseason discussion about strengths and weaknesses and what to expect in the months ahead.
Every year, players and teams are anointed during these gatherings, and every year others are cast aside, doubted. And so it is for North Carolina. One year after the media made the Tar Heels the favorite to win the Coastal Division, they are now viewed with skepticism, a team in retreat.
The ACC’s official preseason poll – the one decided upon during a vote at this event – will not be released until early this week. UNC, though, is likely to find itself somewhere in the middle of the Coastal, and the lower the better as far as coach Larry Fedora is concerned.
Fedora, entering his sixth season as UNC’s head coach, embraced the lowered expectations during his rounds with reporters on Friday. A year ago his team was expected to win its second consecutive divisional title. Now, the presumption goes, it might be fortunate to compete in the division.
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The reason isn’t difficult to discern. The Tar Heels lost nearly everyone of consequence from their record-setting offense from last season. No one knows who the starting quarterback will be, or the leading running back, or which receivers, outside of Austin Proehl, will prove reliable.
There are unknowns every year, and for every team. For UNC, though, the list is especially long.
“I know probably out there a lot of people don’t think we’re going to do much this year,” Fedora said, “and I think that’s a good thing. So pick us low. I would much rather prefer that. I think that will be a good thing for our program.”
It could be a motivating thing, at least – the perception that the Tar Heels are headed in reverse. Their player representatives at this event, offensive lineman Bentley Spain and defensive back M.J. Stewart, both spoke with satisfaction about the inspiration that comes with being overlooked.
And yet there’s truth, or at least some realism, in the skepticism. UNC is moving on without players who accounted for more than 98 percent of its passing and rushing yards from last season. Players who accounted for about 70 percent of its receiving yards are also gone.
Asked to name the last time he’d encountered such an arduous rebuilding task, Fedora said he couldn’t because he has never encountered one like this. This is a challenge unlike any he has faced, one that includes uncertainty at quarterback and essentially every other offensive skill position.
While assessing his offense at one point on Friday, Fedora said, “I feel pretty good about our tight ends.” And then, he continued: “And I’m really concerned about our offensive line, our quarterbacks, our running backs and our wide receivers.”
It can be difficult to gauge how much of that commentary is reflective of genuine concern, and how much of it might be an intentional strategy to lower expectations, therefore making them easier to surpass. Regardless, the challenge of replacing all that has been lost is real enough.
Around last year at this time, Fedora was attempting to help his team manage the considerable hype building around it. The Tar Heels, picked first in the Coastal for the first time in school history, finished in a three-way tie for second.
Far less will be expected entering this season, especially externally. Fedora likely remembers well the last time so little was thought of his team. It was in the summer of 2015, when UNC was picked to finish fifth in its seven-team division. It then went on to finish the regular season undefeated in conference play.
Fedora on Friday considered the motivational implications of lowered expectations. They have decreased for a reason, though Fedora welcomes the lack of outside pressure, and the doubt that comes with it.
“You’re all doing it for me,” he said to a group of reporters when asked whether he could try to use those doubts for good. “So I appreciate that. Makes my job a little bit easier.”