When the college football season started, among Duke, North Carolina, East Carolina and N.C. State, the least was expected of the Wolfpack. The way it has ended, N.C. State has the most to brag about.
After the results of the bowl games, and in light of East Carolina’s collapse over the second half of the season, the Wolfpack has every right to claim this year’s mythical state title.
After N.C. State (8-5) won four of its final five games, including two over in-state opponents and a 34-27 victory over Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl, who’s to argue?
Not North Carolina. The Tar Heels (6-7) curiously began the season ranked in the top 25 by the national media but were picked to finish fourth in their division by the ACC media. UNC coach Larry Fedora correctly said in the preseason it was time for the Heels to make a move from the seven- and eight-win pattern it had been stuck in during the previous six seasons.
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With embarrassing losses to N.C. State, 35-7 in the regular-season finale, and 40-21 to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl, the Heels made a move in the wrong direction. The ugly setbacks, notably 70-41 at ECU and 47-20 at Miami, offset the season highlight which was a dominant 45-20 win at Duke, which spoiled the Blue Devils’ chance at a third straight state title.
Duke (9-4) won more games than N.C. State, but for the Blue Devils, who dropped a 36-31 decision to No. 15 Arizona State in the Sun Bowl, it will be a season remembered for what could have been.
After winning the Coastal Division in 2013, and a school-record 10 games, Duke was 8-1 on Nov. 15 when an average-by-its-standards Virginia Tech team came to Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke made some uncharacteristic special teams mistakes in the 17-16 home loss.
Still, Duke had control of the division when the Tar Heels showed up Nov. 15 for a Thursday night showcase game in Durham. The national ESPN spotlight turned to embarrassment when the Tar Heels thoroughly outplayed Duke in UNC’s best game of the season and Duke’s most confounding performance.
A nine-win season, including the season highlight of a 31-25 win at eventual Coastal champ Georgia Tech, and a third straight bowl trip are good by any standard and outstanding by Duke’s, previous to David Cutcliffe’s remarkable tenure.
But in terms of regrets, ECU (8-4) takes the crown. The Pirates started 6-1, with wins over Virginia Tech and UNC, and rose to No. 18 in the country. But the fast start was offset by a baffling 2-3 finish.
After the Pirates’ 31-21 home win over Connecticut on Oct. 23, they were No. 23 in the first College Football Playoff rankings. As the top team from the “Group of 5” conferences, the Pirates had the inside track on a major bowl bid.
After a 20-10 loss at Temple on Nov. 1, the Pirates fell out of the CFP rankings and never got back in. They dropped their next game, 54-46 at Cincinnati, and then closed the regular season with a 32-30 gut-wrenching loss to Central Florida on a Hail Mary on the last play of the game.
ECU can still post a respectable season with a win over Florida (6-5) in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.
Other than N.C. State, the Pirates have the best argument for a piece of the state title. They also beat UNC convincingly 70-41 in Greenville, and were somewhat handicapped by the lack of opportunities against in-state teams.
But N.C. State beat UNC, on the road. Even if you don’t want to give the Wolfpack credit for beating a 3-9 Wake Forest team, ECU and N.C. State had two other common opponents.
Both teams beat South Florida on the road, N.C. State more impressively 49-17 (compared to 28-17 for ECU). Bottom line, you can’t get around the fact that N.C. State beat UCF and ECU did not.
What a difference a year makes for the Wolfpack. In going 3-9 in 2013, N.C. State lost to Wake Forest, UNC, Duke and ECU, the first time in school history for that dubious feat.
Even when November started this year, it was difficult to foresee N.C. State’s strong finish. After a 4-0 start outside the conference, including a 24-23 win over deceptively good Georgia Southern team, the Wolfpack lost four straight ACC games.
At 4-4, the Wolfpack had to beat Syracuse on the road on Nov. 1 to save the season, and it did, thanks to a big interception by defensive end Pharoah McKever. After getting run by Georgia Tech, 56-23 at home, the Wolfpack throttled Wake, 42-13 (which turned around the next week and beat Virginia Tech) and then pummeled UNC 35-7.
N.C. State got out of the proclamation business when it retired its well-intentioned but ill-fated “Our State” marketing campaign in August. There’s no reason to bring it back – Doeren’s second team said it all with the results on the field.