College Football: UNC back in the ACC race

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 4, 2008

By Aaron Beard
Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL ó Cameron Sexton remembers North Carolina’s players grinding through the little-left-to-play-for practices as the team pushed into November last season. Things couldn’t be more different for the 19th-ranked Tar Heels now.
They’ve already had their best start to a season in a decade and are one win away from their first winning season in seven years. Yet Sexton and the Tar Heels are coming out of an off week talking about what lies ahead, typically a dead issue by late October here in the post-Mack Brown era.
North Carolina can improve its potential bowl draw and make a push to win the ACC’s muddled Coastal Division race with four league games left, a stretch run that starts Saturday against No. 22 Georgia Tech.
“There’s an excitement,” Sexton said Monday. “We have a legitimate chance of achieving some of the goals we set out to do and I think we’re really focused on trying to do that.”
The Heels (6-2, 2-2 ACC) are coming off a 45-24 win over then-ranked Boston College at home, a performance coach Butch Davis called probably the most complete team game in his two years here. That evened their league record, though they entered the bye week with Virginia leading the division and owning the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Tar Heels.
But Miami beat the Cavaliers on Saturday, and now the division has five two-loss teams contending for a spot in next month’s ACC championship game. Several North Carolina players watched that game ó Sexton admitted he was rooting for Miami ó and tried not too think too much about the ramifications, even though they knew the Hurricanes’ win meant they had gotten some needed help.
Now they have to take advantage in a schedule that includes the Yellow Jackets (7-2, 4-2), a trip to Maryland (6-2, 3-1) and rivals North Carolina State and Duke.
“We think we do (have a chance),” safety Trimane Goddard said. “But we have to control our end. If we start worrying about what other teams do, then it’s going to catch up with us and we’ll lose a game.”
Of course, the added pressure is a nice problem to have for a program that had gone 47-71 in the 10 seasons following Brown’s departure for Texas at the end of the 1997 season. Last year, the Tar Heels entered November at 2-6 before splitting their last four games, leaving relatively little to play for other than pride in Davis’ first year in Chapel Hill.
Davis sees a difference in the enthusiasm this year at practice, but said last year’s work ó even in the face of a losing record ó was invaluable.
“The players that were here last year, they saw how much they put in the preparation that gave us a chance to make those games competitive,” Davis said. “That was the step, to make them competitive. The next step is to not only make (games) competitive, but to win them. I think this year’s team learned. … Next year they’re going to have the byproduct of looking at ’07 and ’08, and the ’10 team will look at all three years. All those things become valuable teaching lessons.”
Things sure look different for Sexton, who was buried behind starter T.J. Yates on the depth chart last season. He’s won three of four starts and led the Tar Heels to a win at Miami in relief after Yates went down with a broken ankle the previous week. Yates is back doing limited work at practice, but Sexton doesn’t sound ready to give up the starting job just yet.
“We all dream about winning championships and playing in big games,” Sexton said. “We’ve talked about it a lot. I think that now we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a shot. Let’s not mess this up.’ “