Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels on verge of breakthrough, but still trouble ahead

Landon Turner maintains there was no statement made, no hidden message behind wearing a hooded sweatshirt commemorating North Carolina’s 2012 Coastal Division not-quite-exactly championship on Monday.

“It was raining,” the North Carolina offensive lineman said. “Pure coincidence. It was clean.”

Turner’s choice of sweatshirt may have been accidental, but it was appropriate. He may soon have one to wear commemorating an actual division championship, one recognized outside of the 27514 ZIP code – unlike 2012, when North Carolina was serving a one-year postseason ban but would have won a three-way tiebreaker with Miami (also banned) and Georgia Tech and decided to claim a division title anyway.

With a win over Miami on Saturday and a Pittsburgh loss to Duke, the Tar Heels will clinch the Coastal Division title, no asterisk needed, as well as the breakthrough season they have been seeking for 15 years. Not since 1997 has North Carolina won more than eight games, not even with all the NFL talent Butch Davis had at his disposal.

Even though two of North Carolina’s wins are over FCS teams, breaking that nine-win barrier would be no less meaningful given how long it has stood, a glass ceiling that has reinforced the old “basketball school” mentality despite any number of attempts to change it. And the Tar Heels still have a chance to match, or with some good fortune exceed, that 11-1 record in 1997, Mack Brown’s final season.

The Tar Heels are at the precipice of a real breakthrough: of nine or more wins, of a division title, of their first trip to Charlotte. Two more wins will deliver double digits and the division no matter what happens elsewhere. If they keep winning, things will get very interesting.

They have come so far, from the disarray and defensive incompetence of last season, from the disheartening and increasingly inexplicable opening loss to South Carolina. Getting the rest of the way will not be easy.

Miami is 2-0 under interim coach Larry Scott, thanks to wins over Duke (a gift) and Virginia (the ACC football gift that keeps on giving). An already difficult trip to Virginia Tech became exponentially more troublesome when Frank Beamer announced his intent to retire, making this his final home game. And the Tar Heels conclude the season at N.C. State, where they may be favored but the atmosphere will be unfriendly.

But these Tar Heels have also shown a knack for staying focused, an attribute tested immediately after their loss to the Gamecocks. They haven’t worried, publicly at least, about being overlooked in last week’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, or being ignored in the polls for much of the season, both of which had much to do with what that loss in September did to the public perception of North Carolina.

“All we’re worried about is Miami this week, and that’s it,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “That’s all we think about. We don’t think about polls or any other thing that everybody wants to talk about. Again, we’re trying to stay focused on our goal and understand what’s going to get us there.”

That attitude has brought them success, and there is much more potential success now at hand. While insisting the Tar Heels were entirely focused on Miami, Turner allowed that he might check the Duke-Pittsburgh score before taking the field Saturday, and said he was thrilled to see Clemson clinch the Atlantic Division last weekend, because of what playing the No. 1 team in the country might mean for the Tar Heels in the ACC title game.

“It gives us a better shot, more of a claim at the College Football Playoff,” Turner said. “I’m glad Clemson won that division. In the long run, that could be better for us.”

Turner is willing to look at least that far ahead, and there’s probably no harm in that. But getting to that point, while so close at hand, will be harder than anything North Carolina has done yet this season.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock

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