Editor’s note: This story originally published in The News & Observer on Oct. 5, 2013.
Mack Brown lost his first game as North Carolina coach against a “Big Four” opponent, 42-24 at Wake Forest in 1988.
He lost the next five, too, getting swept by Wake, Duke and N.C. State in 1988 and again in ‘89 (he was on the wrong end of the infamous 41-0 loss to Duke and Steve Spurrier).
That’s why Time Machine Mack can’t believe he’s reading the paper 24 years later and there’s a trophy named in his honor for the best team in the state of North Carolina.
The “Mack Brown Cup” will go to the best team in the state this season. East Carolina beat UNC last Saturday in the first of seven games between the five Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the state (that’s Division I-A to you, Time Machine Mack).
N.C. State travels to Wake Forest on Saturday for the first Big Four game for first-year Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren. N.C. State will also get a crack at East Carolina and Duke this season, in addition to its annual game with UNC.
Doeren can only hope that his tenure ends with the success that Brown had against the Big Four. In Brown’s final five seasons at UNC, from 1993 to 1997, the Tar Heels won 15 straight against N.C. State, Wake and Duke.
Since the formation of the ACC in 1953, no other coach — at any of the four schools — had a five-year sweep like Brown did in the mid-1990s.
Brown recognized the accomplishment as the “state championship.” Sixteen years after Brown’s last game with UNC, there’s still a plaque in the lobby of the Kenan Football Center that honors the school’s state titles.
Back when Brown was at UNC, the Big Four played each other every year (Brown’s teams never did play East Carolina). The math was easier then but it became tougher to designate a true “state champion” after the ACC expanded in 2005, which ended annual N.C. State-Duke and UNC-Wake games. (ECU hasn’t played more than two in-state ACC opponents in a season since 1981).
Hence, a modified scoring system is necessary to designate an annual Mack Brown Cup winner. Road wins are worth two points, home or neutral site wins are worth one, road or neutral site losses are minus-1 point and a home loss is minus-2 points.
Given those parameters, Duke took home the Mack Brown Cup last season with three points — two for the road win at Wake and one for the home win over UNC.
UNC, with a road win over ECU and home wins against Duke and Wake, took home the MBC in 2011, despite a road loss to N.C. State.
The real winner in the post-Big Four vacuum created by Brown’s exit to Texas at the end of the ‘97 regular season?
Without a doubt it’s Wake Forest. In the 15 seasons since Brown left the state, the Deacons have been the best program in the state - at least in going by the results of games between the five teams - seven times.
The faction of Wake Forest fans interested in replacing veteran coach Jim Grobe might want to consider Grobe’s 27-10 record against in-state FBS opponents, including a 16-3 mark at home.
N.C. State is second in MBC titles since ‘97 with four — two with Philip Rivers (2000 and ‘02) and two with Russell Wilson (‘08 and ‘10).
Without Brown, UNC hasn’t been the same against in-state opponents. The 1998 team, under Carl Torbush, swept the Big Four, but the five-year record from 1998 to 2002 was 10-5.
The 55-31 loss to ECU last Saturday dropped Larry Fedora to 2-3 against the Wake-ECU-N.C. State-Duke quartet and 7-4 against everyone else.
Maybe a trip out of the state Saturday is just what UNC needs, but the Tar Heels will have to close hard against N.C. State (Nov. 2) and Duke (Nov. 30) to add another year to state title plaque in the Kenan Football Center.