In an area long known for basketball, college football made a comeback in 2008.
North Carolina and N.C. State both played in bowl games. That hadn't happened since 2001.
Duke won as many games last season (four) as it has at any time in the last 14 years. The three Triangle schools' combined winning percentage in 2008 (.474, 18-20) was their highest since 1998.
History tells us, though, that Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State often have failed to sustain momentum in football. Many times, a step forward for those programs has been followed by two steps back.
At the ACC media kickoff in Greensboro the next two days, players and coaches will share their thoughts about the upcoming season with reporters from throughout the region.
The goal is clear. Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State need to keep improving to establish a reputation for quality football in the Triangle.
"I think when you're trying to build a program, consistency is the most important thing," N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer said last week. "Having been involved in it in different places, what you want to avoid is, 'Up, down, up, down.' "
Success is sporadic
Raycom Sports president and CEO Ken Haines remembers former North Carolina coach John Bunting's excitement in 2004 when the Tar Heels accepted a bid to what then was known as the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte.
"He was willing to do anything to promote the bowl and his team's appearance in the bowl," Haines said last week. "It was a very pleasant time, a very happy time for John Bunting and North Carolina."
Bunting had briefly raised fans' expectations once before in 2001 with a defeat of Auburn in the Peach Bowl, only to stumble to a 5-19 record over the next two seasons.
Heading into that 2004 bowl game, the Tar Heels again appeared on the verge of a breakthrough with an attention-grabbing win over a vaunted Miami program to their credit. That breakthrough never occurred, though, and Bunting was fired seven games into the 2006 season.
Bunting's predecessor, Carl Torbush, wasn't much better. He struggled to a 16-18 record over three seasons. But the Tar Heels are hardly alone in recent football mediocrity in the Triangle.
At N.C. State, former coaches Mike O'Cain and Chuck Amato both failed to capitalize on top-25 finishes in the final Associated Press' poll early in their tenures. O'Cain's team was ranked 17th after posting nine wins in 1994, and Amato's 11-3 season resulted in a No. 12 ranking in 2002.
But O'Cain posted losing records in ACC play four times in five seasons from 1995-99. Amato's teams were 15-20 overall his last three seasons.
Previous Duke coaches also have failed to maintain what little momentum the program has generated in recent years. The Blue Devils haven't posted back-to-back seasons of at least four wins since 1990-91.
Second-year coach David Cutcliffe hopes to continue Duke's improvement from 2008 in a way his predecessors have not.
"I try to build momentum personally every day of my life," Cutcliffe said. "That's what we're trying to get our football team to realize. There's never an ending."
Reasons for optimism
This summer, there are reasons for fans of all three area schools to be optimistic.
Cutcliffe said Duke's speed has improved. The Blue Devils (4-8 last season) have a solid defensive line anchored by Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk. Their senior quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis, was a second-team All-ACC selection last season.
N.C. State (6-7 in 2008) returns first-team All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson and might be among the favorites to win the ACC's Atlantic Division when the preseason media poll is released Monday.
Tight ends coach Jim Bridge said getting to the Papajohns. com Bowl last season gave N.C. State extra practice opportunities and enthusiasm heading into offseason workouts.
"All of that helps put the carrot in front of the horse and shows what the future might be like," Bridge said.
North Carolina (8-5 last season) also played in the postseason, once again in Charlotte, in the game that's been renamed the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Coach Butch Davis said junior Greg Little is ready to lead a wide receiving corps that lost standouts Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster from last season's squad.
At quarterback, Davis has junior T.J. Yates, who set UNC's single-season record for passing yardage in 2007, as well as nine starters back on a defense that continues to upgrade its speed. That might be enough to help the Tar Heels build more successfully on last season's Charlotte bowl trip than the one they made under Bunting.
"There's always high expectations, and you want to push the meter," Davis said. "You want to try to be better each year. And hopefully we'll try to do that this year."
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