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 a discussion of whether a 7-5 finish would be enough to consider North Carolina’s season a success.
1. It has been a long season for North Carolina, and one with a good amount of lows. After beating Duke soundly, though, the Tar Heels can finish with seven wins – and a 5-3 ACC record – with a victory next week against N.C. State. Would that constitute a successful season?
Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): It would be successful only in the context of how UNC started the season. Overall, though, a 7-5 finish isn’t what the Tar Heels expected. And while 7-5 wouldn’t look all that bad on paper, it’s the way UNC endured some of its losses. The Tar Heels were embarrassed at East Carolina, and the defeats against Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami weren’t too competitive, either. UNC didn’t fold and there’s something to be said for that, but a strong finish can’t erase a dismal start.
Luke DeCock: Not by the goals they set for themselves before the season, but after that 2-4 start and the loss to East Carolina, having a chance to win eight games on the season (with a bowl victory) certainly meets recent UNC standards. The bigger question, if the Tar Heels can mount this kind of turnaround for the second straight season, is why they keep getting off to such slow starts that put them in an unenviable position. If North Carolina ever starts a season the way the Tar Heels have been finishing them, look out.
Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): Absolutely. Like we all pointed out at the beginning of the season, this was the toughest schedule UNC has had under Larry Fedora, with Notre Dame and ECU out of the league and the crossover game with Clemson. They beat Georgia Tech (finally), they beat Duke, and they have the potential to make it three in a row over N.C. State. Fedora needs to re-evaluate how he starts the season, but he certainly knows how to close.
Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): That 70-spot East Carolina hung on the Tar Heels, who were coming out of a bye week, on Sept. 20 prevents it from being called an unequivocally successful season. But give the Tar Heels credit – they could have packed it in on multiple occasions, but they played their best game of the year on national television and regained some pride while taking a lap around the field with the Victory Bell.
2. Speaking of Duke, what’s happened to the Blue Devils? They’ve imploded during the past couple of weeks after having firm control of the Coastal Division. What gives?
Carter: Is it possible that Duke was never quite as good as its record indicated at one point? That’s not to take anything away from coach David Cutcliffe and his program, which is clearly miles away from where it was only a few years ago. Still, the Blue Devils have benefited from a soft schedule this season – an easy non-conference slate and Atlantic Division crossover games with Syracuse and Wake Forest – and they won some close games. The preseason injuries on defense were always going to hurt, and quarterback Anthony Boone looks like he’s regressed.
Keeley: Playing with a putrid offense finally got the best of them. In every win against a Coastal opponent – Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh – Duke was outgained in total offensive yards. Outgained by an average of 132 yards, in fact. Duke had no margin for error, and, in those wins, they didn’t make errors, yielding no sacks and committing no turnovers.
Duke needs to figure out why Anthony Boone regressed so badly as a fifth-year senior, in his second year as the starter. Prior to this season, Kurt Roper had been the only quarterbacks coach Cutcliffe had ever had as a head coach – but he left for Florida. It hasn’t been a smooth transition to new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, who came up as a wide receivers coach.
DeCock: I think Laura is on to something with her theory about the coordinator change. Between Boone’s regression and what appears to be the lack of a coherent play-calling strategy, Duke’s offense hasn’t been good enough to win big games. You certainly can – and should – expect more from a David Cutcliffe-coached team on that side of the ball. As for the defense, the season-ending injury to Kelby Brown finally caught up with Blue Devils, who could have used the linebacker’s tackling and leadership against both Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
Giglio: Duke lost to Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina in the league. Every recruiting web site will tell you those three schools have more talent than Duke, so that doesn’t exactly qualify as the world’s most shocking outcome. Still, Duke has made its bones the past two seasons minimizing mistakes and working the margins. The Blue Devils missed two field goals against Virginia Tech and fumbled away two early chances that UNC turned into touchdowns on Thursday night. Duke can’t afford to do either of those things against more talented teams.
3. Despite those three fumbles on Thursday night, Marquise Williams, again, turned in a strong performance. He had 374 yards of offense and accounted for four touchdowns. Should he be a candidate for ACC offensive player of the year honors?
Carter: He won’t win – not in a conference with Jameis Winston and Duke Johnson and James Conner. But yeah, I do think Williams deserves some consideration. He’s arguably been as valuable as any player in the league. Florida State beat Clemson without Winston, and as good as Winston is, the Seminoles have enough talent to still be a great team without him. Take Williams off UNC and I’m not sure the Tar Heels have more than two wins at this point. If that.
DeCock: Williams has been largely a one-man offense for the Tar Heels during their second-half surge, although T.J. Logan has certainly done his share in the past two games. He’s a candidate, but I’d still have the ACC’s two astoundingly talented prolific running backs – Miami’s Duke Johnson and Pittsburgh’s James Conner – ahead of him. With Jameis Winston’s inconsistency, Williams certainly has a shot to make first-team all-ACC at quarterback. Williams has more passing TDs and fewer interceptions than Winston to go with the play-making running ability Winston can’t match.
Giglio: Untimely cramps against Florida State took Miami’s Duke Johnson out of the running, and FSU quarterback Jameis Winston has turned the ball over at an alarming rate. That leaves Williams and Pitt running back James Conner, who has 1,562 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Voters can be peculiar. It’s fair to wonder if Williams’ slow start cost him votes.
Keeley: Not with Conner and Johnson in the league. After watching Williams cough the ball up on three straight possessions while up 28-7 – one more score would have stuck a fork in the Blue Devils – I couldn’t vote for him. He did everything he could to get the Blue Devils back in the game.