North Carolina

Talkin’ Football: Best-case scenarios for UNC, Duke, NC State, ECU

Each week during college football season, columnist Luke DeCock and our college reporters answer the most important questions of the weekend. Our roundtable discussion begins with the biggest surprises and disappointments at the midway point of the season.

1. We’ve reached the midway point. What’s your pick for most (pleasantly) surprising team in the ACC, and which team has been the biggest disappointment?

Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): Remember when everyone thought that Virginia would be pretty bad – again? Turns out the Cavaliers are much improved, thanks in large part to a defense that ranks 28th nationally in average yards allowed. I thought Virginia had a chance to be better, but it’s a surprise to see it atop the Coastal Division. Most disappointing? It has to be UNC, which began the season in the Top 25 and brings a four-game losing streak to the halfway point.

Luke DeCock: My expectations for Virginia were so low that it wouldn’t have taken much to exceed them. The win over Louisville was a solid one. It wouldn’t shock me if Virginia finished 0-6 or 1-5, but that’s still better than anything I expected. North Carolina was never going to be as good as the national voters seemed to think – fourth in the Coastal, as the ACC media predicted, sounded about right – but the Tar Heels were certainly supposed to be better than this.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): I think you meant to ask, “What’s your pick for the most surprising team other than Virginia?”

That leads me to Miami. I don’t get Miami. The big question before the season was would they have a quarterback? Well, they found a pretty good one in freshman Brad Kaaya and what happened? The Canes opened with a loss at Louisville and then dropped road games to Nebraska and Georgia Tech.

That Miami is not better, this season, is disappointing. That Miami is not better, in general, is easily the biggest ACC disappointment since an unbelievable Duke team lost the 1999 national title game in basketball.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Virginia would be my most pleasant surprise – it seems like all ACC writers agreed in the preseason that Virginia would be, far and away, the worst team in the division. But we now know that’s North Carolina.

Virginia’s defense is legit thanks to Jon Tenuta’s aggressive system taking better hold in year two. Mike London has been recruiting well during his tenure (11 four- and five-star players over the past three years), and now we are starting to see the fruits of that labor.

As for the Tar Heels, I never understood why a bunch of nonlocal writers voted them into the preseason Top 25 or why Phil Steele thought they were going to the Orange Bowl. I thought UNC would finish second in the Coastal, but, clearly, the defense is going to prevent that.

2. And who’s the favorite to win ACC coach of the year?

Carter: If you base it purely on which team most defies the expectations, it has to be Virginia’s Mike London. Jimbo Fisher deserves some hazard pay for dealing with the Jameis Winston circus in Tallahassee. And yes, Fisher has been complicit, one could argue, in some of the nonsense – but still.

DeCock: Despite last weekend’s loss to Duke, Paul Johnson has Georgia Tech rumbling and stumbling again after most thought the triple-option mojo was gone. The Yellow Jackets will have a say in the Coastal Division.

Giglio: Again, you meant to ask “... besides Virginia’s Mike London?” right? Steve Addazio has done so much at Boston College, after losing one of the best running backs in conference history, that he might not be at Boston College much longer.

Keeley: Mike London, no? He has already doubled his win total from last year, and it’s the halfway point of the season.

3. What are the best-case scenarios the rest of the way for Duke, UNC and N.C. State?

Carter: For UNC, it’s possible – though probably pretty unlikely – to repeat what it did a season ago and reverse course and wind up in a bowl game. The Tar Heels would have to win four of their final six games – after winning five of their final six last year – to make that happen. This team has proven it can’t get out of its own way. If the Tar Heels do manage to play smarter they just might have a shot.

DeCock: What about East Carolina? The 5-1 Pirates remain on track for a berth in a College Football Playoff game, most likely the Peach Bowl, as the top team from a nonqualifying conference. Only a few potential banana peels remain: at Temple, at Cincinnati, vs. Central Florida. The Pirates’ best-case scenario is New Year’s Eve in Atlanta.

Giglio: N.C. State’s best case is to win out, but what it needs to do is win two more games and get to a bowl game. Even Saturday’s game with Louisville is not impossible, unless Teddy Bridgewater sneaks back on the field, but with FSU and Clemson in the rearview, it’s realistic to think the Wolfpack can cobble together two more wins (Wake Forest and at Syracuse) and get back to a bowl game.

Keeley: Duke’s best case would be running the table the rest of the regular season, similar to what they did last year with an 8-0 finish to win the Coastal division. The Blue Devils shouldn’t be a huge underdog (read: more than a touchdown) in any of their remaining games.