Ever since Clemson's rise as a dominant force and the fall from grace by both Miami and Florida State, the only real mystery left in the ACC has been this: Who is No. 2? The answer seems to change every year.
This year, finally, could be North Carolina's turn.
Mack Brown started another turnaround with a 7-6 debut in Chapel Hill in 2019, with all six losses by seven points or less. And he did it while starting a freshman at quarterback. That freshman, Sam Howell, wound up as the ACC's Offensive Rookie of the Year after passing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
The offense is loaded again, with 10 starters back, and the charismatic Brown has supplemented the roster with a Top 15 recruiting class. WRs Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome each come off 1,000-yard receiving seasons and running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams combined for nearly 2,000 yards a year ago.
That's the good news.
The caution comes from a few things. One is whether the Tar Heels can make the jump to the next level. Promise on paper doesn't always translate into results when they start keeping score. Then there's the impact of the pandemic to an already hard-hit campus, with North Carolina forced to shut down athletics for three days this month and the school abruptly switching to remote classes.
The opt-out factor hit Carolina hard as well, with three potential secondary starters -- D.J. Ford, Bryce Watts and Javon Terry -- all deciding to sit out this season.
No. 2 in the ACC is there for the taking -- if the Tar Heels can pick up where they left off a year ago, when they finished with a three-game winning streak.
Potentially, the Top 10 is within reach as well.