CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) For once, North Carolina isn't trying to dig out of an early hole in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
Instead, the No. 21 Tar Heels are back in the national rankings and standing alone atop their division race.
''I like this side better,'' UNC coach Larry Fedora quipped Monday.
UNC (7-1, 4-0 ACC) started the season with a frustrating loss that seemed to indicate a potentially bumpy season ahead. Instead, the only unbeaten team in the Coastal standings has its longest winning streak since the Mack Brown era heading into Saturday's home game with rival Duke.
''We've got great leadership and the chemistry is great, and the locker room is good,'' Fedora said. ''And those are the reasons why you're in this positions that you're in right now. So really want to just keep doing what we're doing.
''I'm not going to sit here and say, `Hey, we need to work harder, we need a better game plan.' Because if we hadn't been doing that, what are we doing?''
UNC is 4-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1997, which was Brown's last year here before leaving to coach Texas. And the Tar Heels' seven-game run since that head-scratcher of opening loss to South Carolina is the program's longest since winning 10 straight spanning the '96 and '97 seasons.
North Carolina won at then-No. 23 Pittsburgh on Thursday night, setting the stage for a rare matchup with Duke (6-2, 3-1) in which both teams known best for their basketball rivalry were ranked in football.
Then came the Blue Devils' botched-officiating loss to Miami over the weekend, leaving UNC alone atop the Coastal.
Their season debut in the Associated Press Top 25 marks the latest they've been ranked in a season since 2009, though the school ultimately had to vacate every win that year due to NCAA sanctions.
The Tar Heels lost the opener to South Carolina 17-13, committing a series of mistakes that doomed them in a winnable game. Most notably, Marquise Williams threw three interceptions - two in the end zone - and top tailback Elijah Hood had a curiously low workload despite tearing through the Gamecocks defense all night.
UNC hasn't lost since.
The biggest improvement has come on defense, where former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has turned around a unit that gave up program records of 6,472 yards (497.8 per game) and 507 points (39 per game) a year ago. UNC ranks 16th nationally in scoring defense and third in passing defense.
That unit took a hit in the last week when Fedora said defensive back Brian Walker, who had started 18 games in his career, has decided to leave the program. Walker didn't travel with the team to Pitt due what the team called personal reasons.
''Every game does get bigger and bigger,'' Hood said. ''You're on a seven-game run and you just want to keep it going. ''
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