North Carolina will open the 2015 college football season with South Carolina on Thursday, Sept. 3.
As far as sizzle goes, that’s it for the nonconference portion of the schedules for the Triangle’s three ACC teams.
Outside the UNC-South Carolina opener, which will be in Charlotte, the pickings are slim before ACC play for the Tar Heels, N.C. State and Duke.
UNC will play a second Power 5 opponent, Illinois, and Duke will play Northwestern, another Big Ten foe, but the Illini finished 6-7 a season ago and the Wildcats weren’t even bowl eligible.
N.C. State won’t play a Power 5 nonconference opponent and will play on the road twice – at Old Dominion (Sept. 19) and at South Alabama (Sept. 26) – before conference play begins.
There won’t be any apologies for the schedules by any of the three schools, either.
Schedules are complicated, done years in advance and are not written in stone. UNC and N.C. State hunted bigger games – Tennessee, Ohio State, Louisiana State, to name a few deals that went awry – but came up empty.
Duke had played tougher schedules during coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure – facing Alabama and Stanford teams in 2010 and ’11, respectively – but has settled into a more palatable slate.
Besides, Duke and N.C. State went 4-0 against similar nonconference schedules last season. UNC played the toughest schedule under coach Larry Fedora and went 2-2, with losses to East Carolina and Notre Dame.
The highlights, and lowlights, for the Triangle schools:
UNC (6-7, 4-4 in 2014)
Best game (vs. South Carolina, Sept. 3): The Tar Heels made a deal with ESPN under former coach Butch Davis that got them an opener with Louisiana State in 2010 (a 30-24 loss in Atlanta), an opener at South Carolina in 2013 (a 27-10 loss) and this season’s game in Charlotte against the Gamecocks.
Steve Spurrier, as he is quick to point out, is 5-0 against the Tar Heels, the past two wins with the Gamecocks.
Say what? (Delaware, Sept. 26): Almost every team plays at least one Football Championship Subdivision opponent. The Tar Heels will host N.C. A&T on Sept. 12 and also will face the Blue Hens. Delaware has been a power at the FCS level but lost last year’s opener at Pitt, 62-0.
Toughest stretch: There’s nothing like last year’s five-game stretch, that included trips to East Carolina, Clemson and Notre Dame (all losses), but the closing kick of Duke (Nov. 7), Miami (Nov. 14), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 21) and at N.C. State (Nov. 28), likely will be the difference between a good season and a great season.
Bottom line: Even with one of the worst defenses in the country, UNC won six games and made a bowl in 2014. With just a little defensive improvement, the Tar Heels could win seven or eight games because the schedule is that much easier. With significant improvement on defense, and a healthy senior season for quarterback Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels could meet the expectations (double-digit wins, a division title) that were set for last year’s group.
N.C. State (8-5, 3-5)
Best game (Louisville, Oct. 3): The Wolfpack also will get Clemson, likely the preseason pick to win the ACC, at home in October, but this Louisville game will be a measuring stick for the program. The Wolfpack should be 4-0 for the Cardinals, who have won 32 games the past three seasons but are going to lose a lot of talent to the NFL Draft.
Say what? (at South Alabama, Sept. 26): This is the return game from South Alabama’s 2012 trip to Raleigh – a 31-7 Wolfpack win. Unlike the trip to Old Dominion the week before, there is no recruiting value in this game for N.C. State.
Toughest stretch: N.C. State hasn’t won at Wake Forest since 2001 and has never won an ACC game at Boston College. The Wolfpack will face Clemson after the Wake Forest trip and will have to go to Florida State after the Boston College road game.
Bottom line: N.C. State might be a lot better in 2015 than it was in 2014 but win the same number of games. Road games with Wake Forest and Boston College have been traps for recent Wolfpack teams. Clemson and Florida State will come back to the rest of the ACC slightly but still are the most talented teams in the conference by a wide margin. The Wolfpack’s win total will be dependent on how it does with Louisville at home and with those games at Wake Forest and Boston College.
Duke (9-4, 5-3)
Best game (Georgia Tech, Sept. 26): Duke beat the Yellow Jackets during October and had control of the Coastal Division until late-season setbacks to Virginia Tech and UNC. Georgia Tech, coming off an 11-3 finish, will be the team to beat in the Coastal Divisionseason.
Say what? (at Tulane, Sept. 3): Tulane has a new stadium, and came to Durham last year, but this doesn’t feel like a game that helps Duke in recruiting or one that interests its fans, say the same way a nonconference game with N.C. State would or a rekindling of the series with East Carolina.
Toughest stretch: Duke has a chance to start 6-0, and likely be no worse than 4-2, before its open date Oct. 17. After the break, Duke will go to Virginia Tech (Oct. 24), host Miami (Oct. 31) and then go to UNC (Nov. 7).
Bottom line: Duke’s schedule is set up to win eight or nine games, even with a new quarterback. The Blue Devils’ success in the division will be determined by how they do with UNC, Miami and Virginia Tech – and two of those games will be on the road.