ACC football

ACC football: UNC, Duke, NC State face hurdles

jgiglio@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2013 

  • A new season begins DUKE

    Practice starts

    Aug. 5

    Season opener

    Aug. 31

    N.C. Central

    4 p.m.


    UNC

    Practice starts

    Aug. 1

    Season opener

    Aug. 29

    South Carolina

    6 p.m.


    N.C. STATE

    Practice starts

    Aug. 2

    Season opener

    Aug. 31

    Louisiana Tech,

    12:30 p.m.

Dave Doeren was asked about N.C. State’s chances to be a contender for the ACC title Thursday at the Pigskin Preview luncheon.

Doeren, who inherits a 7-6 team and needs to replace seven starters on offense and another six on defense, responded with a question of his own.

“You talking about this year?” Doeren said.

No school from the Triangle has won the ACC title since Duke shared the title with Virginia in 1989. North Carolina’s last ACC title, in 1980, is the last time a Triangle team won the ACC outright. N.C. State’s most recent title came the year before UNC’s. The three have combined to win nine NCAA basketball titles since then.

So Doeren’s “this year?” question can have multiple meanings. Duke’s David Cutcliffe and UNC’s Larry Fedora were in the same room Thursday in Cary, but their programs are in different positions as the college football season approaches.

The Wolfpack is in the midst of a coaching transition from Tom O’Brien to Doeren, who won two Mid-American Conference titles in his two seasons at Northern Illinois.

Duke is coming off its first bowl season since the 1994-95 season and the program is as healthy in Cutcliffe’s sixth season since Steve Spurrier left for Florida after splitting the ’89 ACC title.

UNC would have won the Coastal Division in coach Fedora’s first season in 2012, with a 5-3 ACC record, but the Tar Heels were banned from the postseason for NCAA transgressions under former coach Butch Davis.

Where do the Triangle schools go from here?

UNC: Defensive improvement

Fedora can’t keep track of how many times he has been asked this offseason about replacing running back Giovani Bernard. But Fedora’s primary concern is improving UNC’s defense.

Bernard left a year early and was picked in the second round of the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, one of five UNC players drafted.

As good as Bernard was, UNC (8-4 in 2012) returns two experienced, versatile running backs in senior A.J. Blue and sophomore Romar Morris. Both averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry in UNC’s spread offense, which ranked eighth in the NCAA in scoring (40.6 points per game) and 14th in total offense (485.6 yards per game).

UNC’s biggest problems last season came on defense. The Tar Heels ranked 53rd in scoring defense (25.7 points per game) and 56th in total defense (389.6 yards per game).

UNC’s defensive rankings were helped by a pair of nonconference shutouts over Elon and Idaho. In ACC play, the Tar Heels gave up at least 33 points in five games, including 68 in a home loss to Georgia Tech.

Fedora has to replace what he called his two best defenders in linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles) and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (six sacks) but seven other starters return.

Familiarity with defensive coordinator Dan Disch’s 4-2-5 scheme is one reason Fedora believes UNC will make strides on defense.

“I expect us to be better defensively than we were last year, even though we lost our two best players on defense,” Fedora said.

“I think just because guys understand the system, they should feel more comfortable and think less and be athletes. They should turn it loose and play and not worry about making mistakes.”

It won’t take long for UNC to figure out how much it has learned. After opening against South Carolina, the Tar Heels’ third game is at Georgia Tech.

How much improvement UNC shows on defense will be key to its Coastal Division hopes.

Duke: Chasing bowl streak

As much progress as Duke (6-7, 3-5) has made under Cutcliffe, who has won more games in five seasons (21) than Duke did in the previous 12 seasons combined, the Blue Devils still ended last season on a five-game losing streak.

The losing streak meant Duke’s first bowl appearance since 1994 did not produce its first winning season from that same ’94 season.

The Blue Devils were 6-2 after a dramatic 33-30 win over UNC on Oct. 20. The way they closed their season has tempered some of Cutcliffe’s enthusiasm for the 2012 team’s accomplishments.

“You don’t go back and say, ‘We were playing great in the fourth game or fifth game,’ ” Cutcliffe said.

The return of 15 starters will help the Blue Devils’ pursuit of back-to-back bowls, which they’ve never done. But there were key losses on offense and in the secondary. Cutcliffe noted quarterback Sean Renfree and receivers Conner Vernon and Desmond Scott made a lot of plays last season.

“You can’t assume it will be an easy transition,” Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe’s top priority for his sixth Duke team is to use more players and create more depth. He said this is his strongest and fastest team and “we have more athletes than we’ve had,” and he plans on using more than the 45 players who regularly played on offense and defense last season.

“We have to play more people,” Cutcliffe said. “Did we run out of steam? We have to be smarter about that.”

With N.C. State and Pittsburgh taking Clemson and Florida State’s place on Duke’s schedule this season, the Blue Devils will have an easier conference schedule. If they can navigate the nonconference games as successfully as last year, they will be going back to another bowl.

N.C. State: Starting over

N.C. State has a new coach and new expectations. Last year, the Wolfpack believed it could post a double-digit win total for the second time in school history.

A 35-21 loss to Tennessee in the opener set the tone for an inconsistent 7-6 season, which cost O’Brien his job. There were too many dropped passes, missed tackles and missed opportunities.

Doeren, who was hired in December, has not talked much publicly about the Wolfpack’s problems last season, but he did mention the need to cut down on turnovers and improve on the road.

N.C. State turned the ball over 33 times last year – only five teams in the country had more. The Wolfpack did end a 16-game road losing streak in the Atlantic Division last season with a win at Maryland but it finished 2-5 away from Carter-Finley Stadium.

The Wolfpack has gone 16-3 at home the past three seasons, including wins over top 10-ranked teams in 2012 and ’11.

Doeren noted the Wolfpack will play eight home games in his first season, which should help whoever wins the quarterback job – there are five options, with Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell and junior Pete Thomas as the frontrunners.

Doeren did have a serious answer for the question about the Wolfpack’s chances to contend in the ACC in 2013.

“I’m excited, I don’t know what our chances are yet, I think that’s why we all play the games,” Doeren said. “Every year you have a new team that has to re-prove itself and that’s what we’re about to do.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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