CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- With NCAA sanctions in its past, North Carolina can play for the ACC title for real this season.
The Tar Heels were prevented from going to the conference championship game after getting a share of first place in the Coastal Division in 2012 because of NCAA penalties stemming from academic and extra benefits scandals of recent years.
That didn't keep them from issuing "championship" rings, but it did keep them home for the holidays.
The chances of the Tar Heels making the division title "official" this time around and making their first appearance in the ACC championship game are well within the realm of possibility.
They already have what coach Larry Fedora calls the "biggest piece in the puzzle" with quarterback Bryn Renner returning for his third year as a starter.
Renner has completed 66.7 percent of his pass attempts in his career and has eight career 300-yard passing games, a school record in the category. His passing efficiency rating (154.59) is the highest in ACC history.
The Heels are a bit thin on the offensive line with three new starters joining returnees James Hurst at tackle and Russell Bodine at center, but even with the loss of Giovani Bernard, they look set at running back with senior A.J. Blue, sophomore Romar Morris and promising freshmen Khris Francis and T.J. Logan. Wide receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron are lethal receivers.
The defense holds the key for a potential title run.
It has a potential Player of the Year candidate in defensive end Kareem Martin, but this was a unit that struggled mightily at times. The Tar Heels lost one game in which they scored 50 points, giving up 68 to Georgia Tech, and two others in which they scored 34 and 30.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Tar Heels will find out real quick how they stand. They open Aug. 29 against SEC title contender South Carolina on the road. After hosting Middle Tennessee on Sept. 7, the Heels have an open date before opening ACC play at Georgia Tech on Sept. 21. A home game against East Carolina on Sept. 28 ends the month.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: If the Heels establish a running game early, their fast-paced offense is going to be difficult to handle. They're going to score points. The issue will be stopping people and improving on a defense that gave up better than 32 points a game last year despite recording a pair of shutouts.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Heels have talented pass catchers in WR Quinshad Davis and TE Eric Ebron, but they need a couple of others give the position some depth. The offensive line has three new starters who must gel quickly, and the defense must step up in a big way.
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.