It’s season-saving time for North Carolina and N.C. State. There’s no way around it.
Forget about the best-case scenarios and postseason dreams. Neither team is going to get where it wanted to be. It’s about minimizing damage now, building a platform for next year, salvaging something from this one.
The question for both at this point is what would qualify – where is the bar set to still consider these seasons successful?
For N.C. State, there’s an easy answer. It’s not complicated. The Wolfpack has to win two of its remaining six games and make it to a bowl. That doesn’t mean it would be a prestigious bowl. Or an attractive one. Shreveport would be on the radar, and North Carolina would attest that sometimes it’s better to just stay home.
But it would be a bowl nonetheless, and it would unavoidably mean winning a couple ACC games – something Dave Doeren has yet to do in 11 attempts since arriving at N.C. State. One win has to be against Wake Forest, because as much as Doeren likes to complain about his cupboard being empty, Dave Clawson started with even less. A home loss to the Deacons would be nothing short of catastrophic.
In addition to Wake Forest – which is obviously no guarantee but has to be considered one – the Wolfpack will have to win one of the other five final games, three of which are on the road.
Georgia Tech, which suffered its first loss last weekend, is the only other home opponent. The Wolfpack’s best chances may actually be on the road: at Syracuse, on Nov. 1 after an open date, and at North Carolina, on Nov. 29 – although the Tar Heels gave Notre Dame everything it could handle Saturday in South Bend while the Wolfpack couldn’t beat Boston College at home.
Those Tar Heels have a more complicated route to clearing the bar. Expectations were clearly inflated, both intentionally by Larry Fedora with his preseason rhetoric and unintentionally by the coaches and national media that voted North Carolina into both preseason top 25s. It bears repeating that the media that regularly covers the ACC picked the Tar Heels for fourth in the Coastal Division.
Even if those expectations were grandly outsized, North Carolina fans certainly expected better than the defensive no-shows in the losses to East Carolina and Clemson and the offensive woes against Virginia Tech. The performance against the Irish certainly raised hopes that the 2-4 Tar Heels have turned the corner, as they did about this time last season on their way to winning five in a row.
Still, anything less than six in a row would not represent measurable progress under Fedora, who went 8-4 and 7-6 in his first two seasons. Winning out will be a difficult task given they still have to travel to Virginia, Miami and Duke, although surely the Tar Heels are capable.
The alternative is grim. Will fans with visions of a Coastal Division title be satisfied with 7-5? Or 6-6, even if the ACC is likely to ensure the Tar Heels aren’t sent back to Shreveport – especially if Fedora falls to 0-3 against Duke and the Blue Devils win another Coastal title?
These are difficult questions, with difficult answers. Winning six straight to close out the season is really the only way to avoid asking them.