Maybe preseason love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Tennessee, ranked No. 9 to start the season, would fall into the believer category after escaping in overtime at home against Appalachian State on Thursday night.
The Volunteers, the preseason choice to win the SEC East and considered a darkhorse national contender, needed an incredibly lucky fumble recovery in the end zone to avoid defeat after being outplayed by the Mountaineers.
While the Vols were swimming in buckets of preseason respect, with fellow darlings Michigan (inexplicably at No. 7), North Carolina has to be wondering what it has to do to get some attention.
Never miss a local story.
The Tar Heels went 11-3 last season, better than either Tennessee (9-4) or Michigan (10-3), and return an impressive array of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
But UNC doesn’t have a charlatan of a coach, like Michigan, or reside in the best conference in the country, like Tennessee, hence it starts the season at No. 22. That’s four spots behind Saturday’s opponent Georgia, which has a new, unproven coach and some questions at defense.
UNC had the most productive offense in the country last year, gaining 7.28 yards per play, and led the ACC (and ranked ninth nationally) in scoring with 40.8 points per game.
Mitch Trubisky has to step in for departed quarterback Marquise Williams, who will be missed, but Trubisky is hardly unproven.
UNC’s bowl loss to Baylor, when it gave up 645 rushing yards to a depleted Baylor lineup, is likely the main factor for the Tar Heels are ranked so low.
Fair enough. Polls don’t matter like they used to, certainly not in the preseason. And it has become an annual tradition for at least one team to start the season in the top 10 and finish unranked.
But what’s irksome is if another team had UNC’s credentials, it almost certainly would start the season ranked higher. There’s no way an SEC team coming off of an 11-win season would start the next season outside the top 20.
LSU went in the tank at the end of last season, losing three of four November games and nearly got coach Les Miles fired in the process. The Tigers, 9-3 a year ago, open this season at No. 5.
The best news for UNC is it has a chance to make its case early. After an embarrassing stumble in the opener to South Carolina last season, the Heels will surely be motivated by more than what pollsters think.
It would just be nice to see an ACC team get its due.
New feature alert! If you have college football questions you’d like answered, send them to my Twitter account (@jwgiglio) or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and they’ll be answered in this space every Saturday.
On with the questions:
What is the highest possible ceiling for Duke, now that (Thomas) Sirk is out?
Oddly enough, Duke’s overall outlook doesn’t necessarily change that much without its starting quarterback from a year ago.
That’s not to diminish what Sirk did. He ran for 803 yards and threw for 2,625 more, but it shows the confidence coach David Cutcliffe has in redshirt freshman Daniel Jones, who will replace Sirk.
Jones might not have Sirk’s running ability but he might wind up being a better overall quarterback. Given Cutcliffe’s track record with quarterbacks, that’s also one position you can feel understandably confident that Cutcliffe will be able to manage.
Duke’s problems were more on defense last season, yielding 66 points (UNC), 31 (Pitt) and 42 (Virginia) at the end of a four-game ACC losing streak.
As for Duke’s ceiling, given the uptick in its schedule – effectively trading Tulane and Boston College for Notre Dame and Louisville – it probably doesn’t change even if Jones is an upgrade from Sirk.
The ceiling is probably 8-4 with the best case being a win over Northwestern and UNC included in that mix.
Another bowl trip, which would be a previously unthinkable fifth straight under Cutcliffe, would be a good season. Even a 5-7 finish, which seems about likely, would constitute progress in one form.
In the bad old days, Duke’s bad teams would go winless. In a Cutcliffe’s new normal, a 5-win season would be considered bad.
What constitutes a successful season for N.C. State?
On Wednesday, I wrote about the Wolfpack’s historically average program. It has won 51.9 percent of all its games since the ACC was formed in 1953.
So Dave Doeren’s last two seasons, 8-5 and 7-6, are considered successful by that standard, even if last year’s record was a disappointment.
This season, N.C. State has a considerably more difficult schedule than a year ago, starting with next week’s trip to East Carolina.
Of the 11 Division I teams on N.C. State’s schedule, five are ranked in the top 25 and a sixth, Miami, was the leader in “also receiving votes.”
The good news for N.C. State, which looked good in its 48-14 win over William & Mary in the opener on Thursday, is it does have a chance to notch a big home win.
For the most part, Doeren has won the games he is supposed to win. What would help him, and help define “successful” is if the Wolfpack could get back to beating ranked teams on its home field.
N.C. State excelled in those upset situations under former coach Tom O’Brien, knocking off No. 3 Florida State in 2012 and No. 7 Clemson in 2011.
If N.C. State can beat either Notre Dame or Miami at home this season, and get back to a bowl, I think that would be a successful season.
But given the schedule, I agree with athletic director Debbie Yow who said Doeren could “win the same number of games (as 2015) and have a very good year.”