College Sports

Why it’s so important that this football team beat a 1-5 non-conference opponent

North Carolina Central head coach Jerry Mack watches the Eagles in their win over Gardner-Webb on Saturday.
North Carolina Central head coach Jerry Mack watches the Eagles in their win over Gardner-Webb on Saturday. NCCU Athletics

There’s not a lot Jerry Mack hasn’t accomplished in his four years as the head football coach at N.C. Central.

Mack, 36, has won three MEAC championships, becoming the first coach in school history to win 24 games in his first three years. Last season he led the Eagles to their first national ranking as a Division I-FCS program, finishing No. 19 in the FCS Coaches Poll. After N.C. Central’s first outright MEAC title in 2016, Mack led the team to its first bowl game since making the switch to Division I in 2011.

This season, N.C. Central is off to a 4-1 start and is 3-0 in the MEAC. Since starting at NCCU in 2014, Mack has gone 29-12 and 24-3 record in conference play. But for all he has accomplished, Mack, until this past weekend, still had one more thing to check off his list: beating a non-conference opponent.

N.C. Central this past Saturday finally did just that by beating Gardner-Webb (1-5) from the Big South 24-17, in the fifth meeting between the two in-state schools. The win goes a long way in helping the national reputation of N.C. Central, which entered the game ranked No. 25 in the FCS Coaches Poll.

“It just shows the growth of our program,” Mack said. “We’re a top 25 team in some polls right now, and we’re showing that not only can we beat teams in the MEAC but we can also beat teams out of conference as well.”

Before Saturday, N.C. Central had dropped four consecutive games to Division I FCS non-conference opponents. The last time the Eagles beat an FCS team was in 2013, the season before Mack arrived, when they beat Charlotte 40-13.

Since then, the Eagles have lost to Towson twice and also lost to Florida International and Charlotte, which beat NCCU 40-28 in Mack’s first season.

In four seasons under under Mack, N.C. Central is 0-8 against Division I non-conference opponents, including three losses to Duke and losses to East Carolina and Western Michigan. The Eagles are 4-0 in that same period against the CIAA. Non-conference wins are helpful when it comes to rankings and postseason considerations.

N.C. Central’s rival North Carolina A&T, for example, has two wins over non-conference FCS opponents (Gardner-Webb and Charlotte) this season. Even though the Eagles defeated A&T last year to win an outright MEAC title, the Aggies were still able to get into the playoffs, largely in part because they had a win over an FBS opponent (Kent State).

If the Eagles and Aggies meet again for the outright league title on Nov. 18, the loser of that game could still be awarded a playoff bid. So the win over Gardner-Webb matters to NCCU. Gardner-Webb is better than its 1-5 record shows, with its losses coming against an FBS opponent (Wyoming) and four top-25 FCS schools (No. 5 Wofford, No. 15 N.C. A&T, No. 21 Western Carolina and No. 25 NCCU).

The win over the Bulldogs also helps Mack and his staff when they’re recruiting.

“It’s only going to help us as we continue to push forward and have national attention and help recruiting those guys,” Mack said. “We beat an in-state team, we see Gardner-Webb on the road recruiting, so this is going to help down the road recruiting wise.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV