The ACC's preseason media poll is out and, if you missed it on Monday, there's a No. 1 next to North Carolina's name. As in, the Tar Heels are the preseason favorites in the Coastal Division.
This is a first for UNC. Since the ACC went to a divisional format for football in 2005, the omniscient sporting press had never deemed the Tar Heels the Coastal Division favorites. Until Monday, that is.
Before Monday, the Tar Heels had usually been picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the Coastal. Once, in 2008, they were picked to finish second.
So this is a rarity, indeed, for UNC football. Now, it's important to remember that preseason polls don't mean a whole lot. Nothing much at all, really, except to start a conversation in late July. But if they're good for anything, it's that they provide a gauge for the public perception of a program.
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And the perception, rightly so, is that UNC should be good this year – and possibly better than good. Though preseason polls are meaningless – the Tar Heels were picked fifth a season ago, before winning the Coastal – this one likely does mean something to UNC coach Larry Fedora and his players.
It means that, in a small way, the Tar Heels have achieved a certain level of external respect. That's an intangible quality that, again, might not mean a whole heck of a lot. Miami, for instance, isn't going to be better or worse this season because it was picked to finish second, instead of first.
And yet the poll reflects the rising expectations surrounding Fedora and his team. It also places this UNC team in rare company relative to others in school history. In addition to being picked second in the Coastal in 2008, UNC was picked second in the nine-team ACC in 1998, '97, '94 and '93.
The Tar Heels hadn't finished atop an ACC preseason poll since 1984 – the fifth of five consecutive seasons in which UNC entered as the media favorite. The ACC was a much different conference back then, in the early-to-mid 1980s.
When Georgia Tech began ACC play in football in 1983, the ACC had eight teams – almost half of the size of the conference now. There were no divisions. Florida State was still nearly a decade away from joining the conference and beginning its long run of dominance.
And if the ACC used a division-less format now, there's no debate that Clemson (the overall league favorite) and Florida State would have finished first and second in the preseason poll. Louisville, meanwhile, likely would have received some strong support for third place, along with UNC.
But the ACC isn't division-less. And, yes, the Coastal is less top-heavy – though more balanced, top to bottom – than the Atlantic. For years, the preseason poll has reflected the parity in the Coastal.
Once again, six of the seven teams in the Coastal received at least one vote to finish in first place. It was the same thing last season. And the season before that. UNC, though, did receive about 63 percent of the first-place votes – the highest since Virginia Tech received nearly 90 percent in 2012.
So this is new for UNC. Fedora and his players can't say they've been overlooked, can't say they've been disrespected.
They enter the season the favorite to repeat as Coastal Division champs. The question now isn't about defying low expectations, it's about living up to the highest expectations any UNC team has faced in nearly 20 years.