CHARLOTTE, N.C. - North Carolina was the "hot" team Wednesday at ACC Kickoff.
Tar Heel head coach Mack Brown knows that as much as anybody who attended the Coastal Atlantic teams' media appearance in Charlotte, N.C.
"I think we will be a team that will be circled by everybody," Brown said. "We've been a media darling, so everybody's liked us. They've thrown so much sugar on us we've got to get some of that off."
The hype could be justified. There's no doubt Brown has his best team since his second go-round with the UNC program began in 2019. Quarterback Sam Howell is the class of the league at the most important position and is the leading returning passer in the ACC.
The defense continues to show improvement, and the Tar Heels have been battling with some of the big boys in college football for recruits. It's definitely a different time, but is UNC, which hasn't won more than eight games since 2015, ready to challenge Clemson for the ACC title in 2021?
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"We're getting better, but Clemson continues to be Clemson and they're getting better," Brown said about closing the gap. "You can only be as good as you can be so we need to start working toward that standard that Clemson's set for all of us."
The Tigers are the overwhelming favorite to win the ACC, according to FanDuel, for the seventh consecutive year, but Brown has been able to make some in-roads by beating Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and others for blue-chip recruits. UNC landed 11 four or five-star recruits in the 2021 class.
"The reason Clemson's been so good is because they've won so much, kids are excited about playing for them," Brown said. "We've got to keep winning."
That starts by earning the Coastal Division crown and getting a shot at Clemson, which isn't on UNC's regular-season schedule. Miami, Virginia Tech and others will have something to say about that, but the Tar Heels leave Charlotte as the team some people think has the best chance at truly challenging the Tigers.
Howell says that's at least the type of level UNC is trying to reach.
"Something probably a lot of people won't admit but it's reality: Clemson's established itself as that top program in the ACC and everyone else is chasing them," Howell said.