Three weeks into college football season, it feels like it’s hardly started around here. Remember the anticipation for N.C. State’s opener against Georgia … Southern? No? Duke’s big win over Elon – or was it Liberty? No, that was North Carolina.
Six games, six opponents that don’t exactly move the needle: Elon, Liberty, Georgia Southern, Troy, San Diego State, Old Dominion. In college basketball, you’re allowed to play exhibitions against Division II teams. In college football, they all count.
If this all feels a little anticlimactic, it is. In terms of the number of opponents from the other Big Five conferences, this is one of least demanding and/or exciting collective nonconference schedule the three schools have inflicted upon their fans since the advent of 12-game schedules in 2006.
There’s no ESPN opener against an SEC opponent like the previous two seasons, when North Carolina played at South Carolina and N.C. State played Tennessee in Atlanta. In fact, among 12 nonconference games, there’s only one that’s likely to be against an opponent in the top 25 – Notre Dame, which North Carolina visits on Oct. 11. The other two games against opponents from the former BCS are both Saturday: Duke hosts Kansas and N.C. State travels to South Florida.
Games against East Carolina are always entertaining for obvious reasons, and at least one local team has played East Carolina each season since 1999. (North Carolina goes there next week.) But beyond that, there isn’t a heck of a lot to get excited about outside of ACC play.
To be fair, the days of big, annual nonconference games are pretty much over, anyway. It’s career suicide to take on too many top teams – Virginia has done its best to schedule Mike London out of a job – and television usually plays the matchmaker on the big games that are scheduled.
The Triangle teams don’t have any annual SEC rivalry games the way Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech do, and based on last season’s performance only Duke last season could even make a case to be included in a national-TV showcase this season. Unfortunately, schedules are set years in advance. Duke won’t reap the scheduling rewards of last season until a few seasons down the road.
Still, as people wonder why schools struggle with attendance and students no longer go to games in the hordes they once did, maybe this has something to do with it?
Each team faces one FCS opponent, by far the least compelling opponents for fans even if it is standard operating procedure these days. Perhaps worse, N.C. State hosted Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, two FBS teams in name only, having recently reclassified from FCS.
Even in years when Triangle schools piled on the lower-level opponents, it was typically balanced by better games elsewhere on the docket. In 2009, six home games were against FCS teams, almost a third of the entire local home schedule. But at least N.C. State hosted South Carolina to open the season, Duke traveled to No. 22 Kansas and one of Duke’s FCS games was its first ever against N.C. Central, which had historical resonance if not on-field competitiveness.
What’s the consolation this season? Only the Tar Heels’ visits to Greenville and South Bend, even if the luster of the latter has been slightly dimmed by the knowledge that ACC games against the Irish will soon be routine. Duke and N.C. State can offer little of their own.
We can accept that this is the reality of modern college football, that games are scheduled to get the precious wins that get teams closer to bowl eligibility. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.