by Aaron Beard, The Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL - North Carolina is finally free of NCAA sanctions that kept the Tar Heels out of last year's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
UNC finished tied atop the Coastal Division in coach Larry Fedora's first year, though the one-year postseason ban ended the run after 12 games. That success sends the Tar Heels into this year believing that the program's first league title since 1980 is within reach.
"I think last year was good for us," Fedora said. "It made guys really dig down and find out why they played the game. I think that will carry over this year. I think they all know what's out there, but it's not something we've talked about as a team."
The Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3 ACC in 2012) have lost big-play tailback Gio Bernard and three linemen to the NFL from their record-setting offense. But senior quarterback Bryn Renner is back with tight end Eric Ebron and receiver Quinshad Davis as top targets and left tackle James Hurst anchoring the line.
The Tar Heels' no-huddle spread offense averaged a school-record 40.6 points and racked up 5,827 total yards, nearly 600 yards more than the previous record set in 1993.
The defense - which struggled at times while installing a 4-2-5 scheme - returns senior defensive end Kareem Martin and a secondary that includes returning starters Jabari Price, Tre Boston and Tim Scott.
The players entered last season knowing they weren't going to a bowl no matter how many games they won. Fedora's second season starts with a trip to South Carolina on Aug. 29, and Martin said he senses a different vibe with the ban is gone.
"It definitely gives us that extra incentive and extra motivation knowing that every game is going to decide where we're going to play in December - as opposed to last year where we were just playing for pride," Martin said. "Now we have that extra thing to play for. I think it's getting a lot of guys excited, for South Carolina especially."
Here are five things to watch with the Tar Heels this season:
1. DEFENSIVE STRIDES: UNC allowed an average of 33 points in league games, including 68 to Georgia Tech. Fedora said the defense had "a little bit of a confidence problem" late last year, though Boston said defensive players are more comfortable with the scheme now. "We're ready to play, we know our plays and we know the playbook like the back of our hands," he said.
2. GIO'S ABSENCE: It's not just about whether A.J. Blue or Romar Morris, or even newcomers Khris Francis and T.J. Logan carry the ball at tailback. Bernard also left another key vacancy at returner. Fedora said four players are returning punts in training camp, including sophomore receiver T.J. Thorpe, who missed last season with a broken foot.
3. REBUILDING UP FRONT: The return of Hurst and center Russell Bodine brings experience to the offensive line, but the Tar Heels will need time to gel once their new five-man unit is set later this month. Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson and sophomore Landon Turner (four starts in 2012) are settling in at the guard positions, while redshirt freshmen Jon Heck and John Ferranto are battling at right tackle. "It'll take probably all the way up until that last week to really solidify who goes where," offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said.
4. OFFENSIVE GROWTH: How does an offense top itself after breaking records that stood nearly two decades? Renner's return could mean the go-go-go offense runs even faster. "You can set all the records you want," Renner said, "but if we don't go to a bowl game or meet the standard of what Coach Fedora wants, then those records are null and void and we really don't care."
5. ROAD CHALLENGES: UNC's division hopes will be decided on the road. While preseason Coastal favorite Miami visits for a Thursday night game in October, the Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tech (picked second in Coastal) and Georgia Tech (picked fourth). In addition, they travel to rival North Carolina State, where they haven't won since 2005.