By Barry Jacobs
Funny how things work out.
When the season began, there was talk of rosy prospects for several ACC teams, and the breakthrough aspirations of others.
Almost as an afterthought, there was North Carolina and first-year head coach Larry Fedora, disqualified from postseason consideration before the first ball was kicked off, the first tackle made.
Motivation might be a problem for the Tar Heels, the thinking went, given the impossibility of winning a league championship. And who knew how the Heels would adjust to Fedora's fast-paced, spread offense after years in a pro-style scheme?
Four months later, with the 2012 regular season concluded, it's clear things didn't quite turn out the way experts predicted.
In fact, an argument can be made (read on) that the ACC team that prospered as much as any, that achieved more in the face of ongoing adversity than any in the conference, played its home games at Kenan Stadium.
Don't take Fedora's word for it, or ours. Numbers tell the unequivocal story.
The Heels ranked among the top six squads in the conference in major categories including scoring offense and defense, rushing offense and defense, total offense and passing offense, total defense and passing defense.
Five ACC teams had a winning overall record, among them North Carolina.
Four teams tied for first in the ACC's Coastal Division - Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina. Finishing atop the division was a Carolina team goal, one achieved in spirit if not according to the record book.
Certainly Fedora and his players were determined to assert a measure of supremacy.
"To be Coastal Division champs, and that's the way we'll look at it," Fedora said following a 45-38 defeat of Maryland to conclude the season, "we're very proud of this football team."
Only two ACC teams besides UNC finished with a 6-1 record at home -- acknowledged powers Clemson and Florida State, ranked throughout the season.
Just two conference teams, Clemson and FSU, scored more points than North Carolina, which averaged 40.6 points per game. No UNC squad ever scored more prolifically. No UNC squad ever scored more points in a game than the 66 in a victory against Idaho.
Clemson and FSU were the only league members with more wins than the eight compiled by UNC.
A single team, Clemson, had more first team All-ACC selections than UNC's five.
The Tigers were the sole league squad with a more productive attack than the Tar Heels, who ranked 10th in total offense (485.6 yards per game, most in school history) among 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Only Florida State had a better winning percentage in games when it scored at least 40 points. FSU was 7-0 in such contests, UNC 6-1.
Carolina tailback Giovanni Bernard, arguably the most exciting runner at Chapel Hill since Kelvin Bryant (1979-82), was among only two repeat members on the All-ACC first team. (Bryant also twice made the first team.)
Bernard received more votes for the all-conference squad than any other player on offense or defense.
The product of Davie, Florida, led the ACC in rushing yards (1,228) despite playing two fewer contests than his nearest competitor. His 122.8-yard average was the league's best. The last Tar Heel to lead in that category was Natrone Means (103.0) in 1991, also the last Heel to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (1991 and 1992).
Bernard's 198.1 all-purpose yards per outing were the league's best, as well as tops by any ACC player since 1969, when rankings were first based on per-game yardage.
The redshirt sophomore additionally paced the conference in touchdowns (19, second in UNC history), scoring average (11.4 points per game, second-best in the ACC since 1980), and punt return yardage (16.4).
Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper won the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the league, the first Tar Heel to be so honored in 24 years. Cooper is a finalist for the Outland Trophy too.
Bernard was the first player since 2002, when the league added a "specialist" slot to the all-conference first team, to earn simultaneous selections as both the specialist and a member of the offensive unit.
And, in keeping with Fedora's vow to accelerate the offensive pace to discomfit opponents, the Heels ranked 11th in time of possession (26:62), ahead of only Miami.
"I think it showed that we're definitely headed in the right direction," Fedora said of his team's performance across the season. "I think the people understand that the Tar Heels are for real and that we're going to be back and we're doing to something that's going to be reckoned with."
He's got the numbers to prove it.