We made it. After gathering at The News & Observer’s venerable oaken roundtable for the past 12 weeks, the final weekend of the regular season – at least for the Triangle’s ACC teams – is here.
Now we’re back one last time – this season, anyway – to discuss only the most important matters. You have questions, The N&O’s esteemed college football roundtable has answers:
Q: Entering the final weekend of the regular season, who’s your pick for ACC Player of the Year and Coach of the Year, and what was the best game of the year?
Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): While Clemson’s Dabo Swinney deserves all the praise he receives, nobody has done a better job than North Carolina’s Larry Fedora. Swinney’s program was in place at Clemson. Fedora practically had to rebuild his after a debacle of a season last year.
Florida State’s Dalvin Cook is the most talented player in the ACC, but offensive ACC Player of the Year honors should go to one of two quarterbacks – either Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or UNC’s Marquise Williams. And game of the year: How about UNC’s comeback from 21 down to win at Georgia Tech?
Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): As good as Deshaun Watson has been for Clemson, Dalvin Cook has been the best player in the ACC. Cook, who has excelled in spite of a nagging hamstring injury, leads the ACC in rushing (1,475 yards) and touchdowns (17).
North Carolina’s Larry Fedora will win the ACC coach of the year but there’s an argument to be made for Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Carolina’s overall improvement, from 6-7 last year to 10-1 (heading into Saturday), will be the deciding factor in Fedora’s cause.
Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Coach of the year is an easy call in my mind: Dabo Swinney. Yes, Larry Fedora has done a better job exceeding expectations (which is typically the winning criteria for this award), but Clemson had to replace eight starters on defense, and that unit is better than it was last year. The offense didn’t miss a beat when No. 1 receiver Mike Williams was lost for the year in game No. 1 with a neck injury, either. Going undefeated is quite the accomplishment, and Swinney gets my vote for that. And speaking of Clemson, my pick for best game is the Tigers’ Oct. 3, 24-22 win against Notre Dame that came down to the final play.
Player of the year, for me, would be Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who has been quite productive despite the fact that every opponent knows he is Florida State’s best option on offense (the line he is playing behind leaves much to be desired, too). Without Cook, the Noles’ rebuilding year would be much more apparent in their win-loss record.
Luke DeCock (columnist): Let’s deal with the easy part first. Larry Fedora is the ACC coach of the year, having somehow managed to turn around a completely toxic locker room and turn team chemistry into a strength. That alone is a stunning turn of developments, even if Gene Chizik gets all the credit for North Carolina’s equally impressive defensive turnaround. As for player of the year, I’m undecided between Marquise Williams and Deshaun Watson. You can make a pretty strong case for either.
Q: What will be your enduring memory of the 2015 regular season?
AC: Probably that Georgia Tech game in Atlanta. That was the first indication that things really were different at UNC this season – and in a positive way. Chronicling how the Tar Heels went from perennial underachievers to putting together their best season in 18 years has been memorable, overall.
JG: That wonderfully miserable 3-0 Wake Forest win at Boston College on Oct. 10. Good defense? Yes, but that was a clinic in offensive ineptitude. Immediately following the shutout of the Eagles, Wake’s defense gave 78 points in five quarters to UNC and N.C. State.
LK: Duke’s curious collapse, just because I’ve been watching it for a month now. Yes, the Miami loss was brutally unfair and a total punch to the gut. But at that adversity, the Blue Devils completely crumbled. There is another team out there (Michigan State) that suffered a similar officiating injustice in a loss, but the Spartans managed to regroup and beat Ohio State. Duke will be lucky to beat Wake Forest.
LD: North Carolina’s first-play flea-flicker was the beginning of 60 minutes of complete and utter domination by the Tar Heels over Duke in a game I thought the Blue Devils would win, coming off the Miami debacle and still grumpy over last year’s game with North Carolina. That game established two truths: Duke was deeply flawed, and North Carolina was a better football team than I had previously believed.
Q: North Carolina at N.C. State on Saturday. Is the gap between these programs as large as the team’s record and ranking (UNC on the cusp of the top 10, N.C. State unranked) indicate?
AC: This season it is. N.C. State had chances to take a step forward and didn’t. Blame it on Shadrach Thornton, whose inability to stay out of trouble cost his team. Blame it on N.C. State just being a year or two away. Whatever the case, the Wolfpack just isn’t there yet.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be soon. Or that it can’t win on Saturday – though, regardless UNC has clearly had the better season. Everything that has happened since N.C. State’s 35-7 victory in Chapel Hill last season is proof of how quickly things can change in college football.
JG: To answer a question with a question: What would UNC’s record be against N.C. State’s schedule and vice versa?
We don’t know the answer. The two teams will play on Saturday and the size of the gap will be perfectly clear.
LK: You know, I’m not a huge fan of people just spouting opinions on topics without any insight (yes, I’m aware that a large, large portion of sports “journalism” is just that). I’ve seen UNC play a grand total of one game this year – and, boy, did they look great against Duke – and I haven’t seen State at all. So I’m going to pass and encourage everyone to read the responses of my colleagues.
LD: Between these two teams, this season, yes. North Carolina is a better football team right now, period. Between these two programs, overall, probably not. There’s no reason N.C. State can’t have a season like this in the next few years, just as there’s no reason to expect this from North Carolina year after year. UNC is clearly ahead at the moment, but not so far that N.C. State couldn’t catch up quickly.