UNC has chance to make impact at midseason

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams (12) looks for Elijah Hood, connecting for a seven-yard gain in the first quarter against Illinois at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams (12) looks for Elijah Hood, connecting for a seven-yard gain in the first quarter against Illinois at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

With the exception of Clemson’s two-point home win over Notre Dame, the first half of the 2015 college football season has been largely forgettable for the ACC.

Any progress the conference has made the last two years, with big bowl wins and Florida State’s national title in 2013, seems to, in the least, stagnated with a 3-8 start against the other Power 5 conferences. The 4-4 split with the American Athletic Conference doesn’t exactly enhance the ACC’s cause, either.

While Clemson, ranked No. 5 in the AP poll and off to a 5-0 start, is the league’s best shot at a piece of the College Football Playoff pie, North Carolina has emerged as the conference’s most interesting team.

The only thing holding the Tar Heels (4-1) back in the wide open Coastal Division race is themselves. While Duke has figured out how to win the games it is supposed to – a formula that led to the 2013 division crown – UNC’s still trying to establish some consistency.

The Heels, who play Wake Forest Saturday at 7 p.m. at Kenan Stadium, own one of the ACC’s best wins outside the ACC, 48-14 over Big Ten foe Illinois on Sept. 19. Miami (over Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (over Purdue) are the only other ACC teams with wins over Power 5 schools.

Illinois (4-2) beat Nebraska, 14-13 on Oct. 3 and Purdue is 1-5, which in theory, makes UNC’s conquest second only to Clemson’s close home win over Notre Dame.

The problem for UNC is it’s also responsible for one of the ACC’s worst losses. The impact of the 17-13 loss to South Carolina in Charlotte in the season-opener on Sept. 3 gets worse by the day.

Since beating the Heels, South Carolina (2-4) lost at home to Kentucky, lost by 32 at Georgia, beat a winless Central Florida and dropped road games to Missouri and LSU. Even coach Steve Spurrier had enough, quitting on his team earlier this week.

UNC can’t get the South Carolina game back, but it can take care of business in the wide-open Coastal Division. With Wake Forest (3-3) and Virginia (1-4) next on the schedule, the Heels should take a 3-0 ACC record into their Oct. 29 trip to Pittsburgh, which has already started 2-0 in the ACC.

The four straight wins, albeit two of them are over Division I-AA opponents, since the South Carolina disappointment have been a promising start on the consistency front for Larry Fedora’s fourth team.

In a league full of inept offenses, and some relatively strong defenses, the Heels stand out for their ability to put points on the scoreboard. They rank No. 17 in the country, and first in the ACC, with 38.6 points per game. Throw out the Delaware and North Carolina A&T exhibitions, and they still put up 48 on Illinois and 38 on Georgia Tech.

If the Heels continue to improve on defense, they can probably stumble twice in ACC play and still wind up in Charlotte on Dec. 5 for the championship game. With a potential beauty pageant looming against a one-loss Big Ten team or a one-loss Pac-12 champion, the ACC needs a strong, ranked team to emerge from the Coastal race. UNC has as good of a chance as anyone else to be that team.

First-half awards:

Best offensive player: Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

The sophomore is responsible for nine of the Seminoles’ 19 touchdowns and 863 of their 2,162 total yards of offense. And that’s with only two carries in a 24-16 win at Wake Forest on Oct. 3.

If not for LSU running back Leonard Fournette, he’d be the talk of college football.

Best defensive player: Jeremy Cash, S, Duke

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is a quarterback genius, but his team has remade it’s image and is winning with defense. Cash leads the ACC with 11.5 tackles for a loss, the senior has also forced three fumbles.

Best coach: Pat Narduzzi, Pitt

All the first-year coach has had to deal with is losing his best player, ACC player of the year running back James Conner, to a knee injury in the first half of the first game. The Panthers (4-1, 2-0 ACC) haven’t always been pretty – and maybe beating the two Virginia schools is not all that impressive – but they are a walk-off 57-yard field goal at Iowa away from being 5-0.

Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio