Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina

UNC in Unfamiliar Territory

The Tar Heels look to solidify their hold on the Coastal Division against Duke on Saturday.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 21 North Carolina is in sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal Division for the first time in school history.

The ACC began divisional play in 2005, and prior to this season, the Tar Heels had won its conference opener just once since then. In 2011, UNC defeated Virginia, 28-17, on Sept. 17 to move to 1-0 in the Coastal, roughly three hours after Duke outlasted Boston College, 20-19 to win its ACC opener.

UNC is currently all alone atop the Coastal with a 4-0 conference record, leading Pittsburgh (4-1) by a half of a game and Duke (3-1) by a full game. After a decade of fighting an uphill battle to the ACC Championship Game, the Tar Heels are finally positioned to control their own destiny this late in the season for the first time since taking a 3-2 conference record to Maryland’s Byrd Stadium on Nov. 15, 2008.

UNC lost that game, 17-15, on a late field goal by Maryland’s Obi Egekeze.

Larry Fedora’s first team in Chapel Hill would have won the Coastal Division in 2012 had it been eligible, a disheartening footnote for a program that hasn’t won the ACC title since 1980.

The poor starts and conference restrictions are not relevant to UNC’s 2015 team, as Fedora has been keen of saying in recent weeks, setting up a regular season finish that has fans salivating.

When reminded of the program’s Coastal struggles on Monday, Fedora smiled and said, “I like this side better.”

The Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak, which included a win over then-No. 23 Pitt on Thursday night, has moved them into the national rankings for the first time since the start of the 2014 season. This is the first time UNC has been ranked in November since 2009 and the highest its been ranked this late in the season since moving up to No. 17 in the AP poll on Nov. 9, 2008.

The Coastal standings and national recognition serve as eye candy for the sport’s consumers, while representing potential distractions for the teams involved.

“We don’t talk about rankings,” Fedora said. “We talk about what our goals are every week so we don’t lose sight of them with all of the other obstacles that are out there. The big thing for me is to remember how you got where you are. It didn’t just happen. You put a lot of hard work and effort into it…

“We really want to just keep doing what we’re doing.”

What UNC has been doing is pairing an explosive offense with an ever-improving defense. The Tar Heels rank 22nd nationally in scoring offense (36.9) and 25th in total offense (469.9), while ranking 16th in scoring defense (17.0) and 43rd in total defense (358.0).

The next step for the Tar Heels is to capitalize on their current position. They took their first significant step toward claiming the Coastal Division crown last Thursday at Pitt. Saturday’s rivalry game against Duke represents another opportunity for UNC to distance itself from its divisional competition.

“Coach Fedora tells us just about every day that we control our own destiny,” sophomore tailback Elijah Hood said. “It’s just up to us every week to go out there and get the wins. The Coastal is such a tight division that every loss counts almost like a double loss. These head-to-head matchups are really important, especially with the top teams in the Coastal like Pitt and Duke. This game couldn’t be bigger for us.”

A win on Saturday would essentially give UNC a two-game lead in the Coastal with three to play, due to its head-to-head win over the Panthers. If Duke wins, the Tar Heels will drop into a tie for the Coastal Division lead, remaining in contention for a spot in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 5.

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