Preview: A look at UNC football’s Atlantic Division opponents for the 2022 season

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CHARLOTTE, NC — The 2022 ACC football kickoff began Wednesday, featuring teams from the Atlantic Division.

UNC competes in the Coastal Division, but regularly faces teams from the Atlantic, which includes state foes Wake Forest and NC State, as well as soccer powerhouse Clemson. Having won 10 of the last 11 conference championships, the Atlantic Division has established itself as the premier football division of the ACC.

This season, competition within the division intensifies, as all seven teams return to their respective starting quarterbacks from last season. Three Atlantic teams — Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest — were listed in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 poll released in late May.

Here’s a look at the two Atlantic teams North Carolina will face this season.

NC status

After winning nine games in the 2021 season, the NC State Wolfpack is looking to make another leap into the national spotlight.

With victories over Clemson and North Carolina last year, the Wolfpack have proven themselves. Headlining redshirt junior quarterback Devin Leary and junior linebacker Drake Thomas, a breakout season for this experienced team could be on the horizon.

Even so, head coach Dave Doeren understands that it’s the little games, not just the return of key players, that will produce wins in the fall.

“It’s one more game you have to do – that’s all,” he said. “In the end, it will come down to a player making a routine play that will change the outcome of the match.”

Although Leary received most of the attention this offseason, the Wolfpack defense could lead the charge this fall.

NC State fires 10 defensive starters from a group that gave up a tick for 330 yards per game, good for third place in the ACC. Additionally, the Wolfpack will insert redshirt junior linebacker Payton Wilson — a first-team All-ACC player returning from injury — back into the fold to bolster an already deep defensive unit.

“It’s always about raising the bar,” Doeren said. “So the defense last year statistically did a lot of things that we didn’t do, and so now it’s about improving those stats.”

WakeForest

Fresh off their first ACC Championship appearance since 2006, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons head into the 2022 season looking to repeat as Atlantic Division Champions.

Led by quarterback Sam Hartman, the fast-paced Demon Deacons offense will look to produce another successful season in Winston-Salem. The redshirt junior is coming off a stellar campaign that saw the Charlotte, North Carolina native pass for 4,228 yards and 39 touchdowns.

However, through all of Hartman’s accomplishments on the court, it’s his value in the locker room that impresses head coach Dave Clawson the most.

“Every physical measure of a quarterback (Hartman) has improved every year,” he said. “The big difference for him in our football team is simply his leadership qualities.”

While the Demon Deacons posted the second-best offense in the conference last year, Wake Forest’s defense struggled. Ranking bottom of the ACC in points and yards allowed per game, the Demon Deacons gave up a combined 151 points in their three losses last year.

With these struggles, Clawson decided to take the initiative, hiring Brad Lambert as Wake Forest’s new defensive coordinator in January.

“I think we are capable of a lot of improvement on this side of the ball,” Clawson said. “I’m very comfortable and confident that we’ll get there with Coach Lambert and the staff he’s brought.”

With his new defensive leadership and the return of Hartman — who finished third in the ACC’s Player of the Year voting last season — the Demon Deacons are well-equipped for a second straight trip to the league title. ‘ACC.

For what was once considered a lower-level football school within the ACC, Wake Forest feels like they have turned the script around for the new era of Demon Deacon football.

“The culture was, ‘It’s a big school, you have to be smart because you’re going there,'” Hartman said. “But now it’s because you’re a good football player who’s also quite smart.”

@evanr0gers

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