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Howell, No. 10 Tar Heels face hype as ACC division favorite

August 18, 2021 GMT

The expectations have risen rapidly at North Carolina, with the Tar Heels going from a team needing confidence just to win a few games to having a Heisman Trophy candidate and a high national ranking.

Mack Brown knows this season’s success will depend on how his team handles that change.

“We’ve gotten hype,” the coach said. “We’ve been hugged. We’ve had sugar thrown all over us.”

Brown is back for the third season of his second stint leading the Tar Heels. And this year, the Tar Heels are starting at No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll. That’s their highest preseason ranking since 1997, Mack Brown’s last year of his first stint with the Tar Heels. North Carolina is picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s topsy-turvy Coastal Division race.

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It’s a testament to the recruiting Brown’s staff has done, along with the presence of quarterback Sam Howell, that the Tar Heels (8-4, 7-3 ACC last season) are in this position despite losing two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver to the NFL draft.

The high-scoring 2020 team got a taste, rising to No. 5 in the AP poll before suffering an upset loss at Florida State.

“We weren’t ready to be a top-ranked team at that time,” Brown said. “What we’ve told them is quit talking about it and do it. That’s your work every day.”

Howell, a junior, has been a perfect fit in Phil Longo’s scheme. The preseason ACC player of the year pushes the ball downfield to rank as one of the national leaders in passing yardage and touchdowns, with his 68 TDs in two seasons tied for the most in program history. Yet he also avoids major mistakes, throwing just 14 interceptions in 770 attempts (1.8%), and has proven he can dig the Tar Heels out of big deficits.

Brown has already indicated that this will likely be the quarterback’s final season before pursuing an NFL career as a projected high pick.

“I think we have a really mature team and I don’t think anyone’s really let the hype get to us,” Howell said. “Everyone knows the hype we have surrounding our program and I think it’s well deserved. But also the hype isn’t going to win football games.”

Some other things to know about the Tar Heels for the 2021 season:

NEW RUNNER

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The Tar Heels had possibly the nation’s best 1-2 running punch last year with Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler will get the first shot at filling those vacancies.

Chandler ran for 2,015 yards in 45 games with the Volunteers, and ranks fifth in Tennessee history with 3,245 all-purpose yards.

“He’s older,” Brown said. “He’s played in games against Alabama and Auburn and Georgia and Florida when he was at Tennessee. So he won’t be surprised or shocked or big-eyed” in the season opener.

NEW TARGETS

Howell will have new primary targets after the losses of starting receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. A name to watch at receiver is Josh Downs, a second-year freshman who had four catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M after Brown opted out and declared for the draft.

PROTECTING HOWELL

The offense’s eight returning starters includes the entire offensive line, headlined by preseason all-ACC guard Joshua Ezeudu.

DEFENSIVE GROWTH?

The Tar Heels have 10 starters back on defense, led by linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel (No. 2 returning tackler at 78) as well as brothers Tomon and Tomari Fox (11 combined sacks). The secondary features rising star Tony Grimes after he was ranked as 247sports’ No. 1 cornerback in the class of 2021 before reclassifying to join the Tar Heels last year.

Gemmel said improved depth will allow the Tar Heels “to roll guys with the second team every other series if we really need to.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Tar Heels open with a tough Coastal Division matchup at Virginia Tech on Sept. 3 and the month of October features a key stretch with home games against Duke, Florida State and NO. 14 Miami – picked to finish behind UNC – before stepping out of conference to visit Notre Dame on Oct. 30.

UNC also hosts Wake Forest (Nov. 6) in a matchup designated as a nonconference game — which also took place in 2019 — with the schools playing each other less frequently amid the league’s scheduling rotation.

The Tar Heels close with a cross-divisional game at rival North Carolina State on Nov. 26.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/College-football and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap