CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Eighth-ranked North Carolina's journey to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game hasn't been easy.
It follows nearly two decades marked by failed coaching stints and on-field struggles, along with long-running NCAA turmoil that led to sanctions and continues to hover over the school. But after an opening-night loss appearing to signal more ups and downs ahead, the Tar Heels have rolled as they play No. 1 Clemson on Saturday night for their first ACC title since 1980.
"There's always setbacks and always things you have to overcome, and probably more than I expected," fourth-year coach Larry Fedora said. "But you still knew what the vision was."
Led by one of the nation's top offenses and a revamped defense, the Tar Heels (11-1, 8-0 ACC, No. 10 CFP) have matched their season record for wins and own their first 8-0 ACC mark. They followed that turnover-marred loss to three-win South Carolina with their longest winning streak in more than a century, becoming only the fourth UNC team to win 11 games.
They have a shot to make the College Football Playoff, too — if they can beat the Tigers (12-0, 8-0, No. 1 CFP).
The program had followed a winding road in the years since Mack Brown's departure for Texas in 1997, the last time UNC won 11 games or appeared in the top 10 before now.
The Tar Heels shuffled through three coaches — four counting an interim coach — in search of stability before Fedora. They won no more than eight games in 17 seasons following Brown's exit, managing nine winning records and four bowl wins.
On top of that, they vacated all 16 wins from two of those seasons because of NCAA sanctions for improper benefits and academic misconduct in a case launched in 2010.
Fedora coached against Brown's Longhorns in the Big 12 while he was Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator before becoming Southern Mississippi's head coach. He consulted with Brown about the UNC job before taking it.
Brown told the Associated Press he told Fedora that UNC was "potentially not a good place but a great place to coach." He also emphasized the hiring of former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator in UNC's rise.
Chizik, Brown's defensive coordinator when Texas won the 2005 national title, led the overhaul of a unit that allowed the most points and yards in school history last year. Now UNC has the 19th-ranked scoring defense (20.8 points).
The Tar Heels are still playing amid an NCAA investigation into an academic fraud scandal, an offshoot of the original case that has led to five more largely broad-based charges against the school. UNC only just emerged from scholarship reductions Fedora inherited.
Several seniors have experienced most of that turmoil.
"At first it's like, 'Man, is this program ever going to be anything special?' " fifth-year senior Marquise Williams said. "It's really a dream come true for us."