Luke DeCock

DeCock: Same debate (Duke or ECU?) over NC's best football team

East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014.
East Carolina celebrates after scoring during the second half of East Carolina's 70-41 victory over UNC at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, September 20, 2014. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Amid everything that changes from year to year in college football, it’s clear four weeks into the season that one thing hasn’t changed a bit from last fall: The debate over the best team in North Carolina is between Duke and East Carolina.

Duke is 4-0. East Carolina is 3-1 with two wins over ACC teams and a loss to the best team anyone in the state has played, South Carolina. Both won 10 games a season ago. Both have picked up where they left off.

When Duke’s players were done with their 47-13 win over Tulane on Saturday, they couldn’t help notice East Carolina’s 70-41 thrashing of North Carolina. Maybe they didn’t hear the purple-clad fans chanting “Our State” (“Arrrgh State?”) in the final moments, but the message was received just the same.

“They just flat-out dominated UNC,” said Duke running back Josh Snead, who is from Smithfield. “From my standpoint it was really good to see that, hanging 70 points on UNC. It was like, ‘Wow. This team is really good.’ ”

Duke offensive lineman Takoby Cofield, who is from Tarboro, texted a few of his friends who play for the Pirates after the game, including defensive star Zeek Bigger: “Big win. Keep it up.”

While N.C. State is 4-0, the Wolfpack still has everything to prove, although it won’t get a better chance than this weekend against Florida State. (To be fair, Duke hasn’t played anyone of note either, but the Blue Devils are the defending Coastal Division champions while N.C. State is still looking for its first ACC win since 2012.) North Carolina played its way out of the conversation in Greenville, and Wake Forest was never really in it.

That leaves the same two teams as last year, two teams that haven’t played each other since 2005 and aren’t scheduled to play each other in the future. A half-decade ago, when this season’s nonconference schedules were finalized, there wasn’t much of a clamor for Duke and East Carolina to play, the way there is starting to be now.

“It would be great to play ECU, but they’re not on our schedule,” Snead said. “It would be great to see who really owns the state.”

Having lost at South Carolina before winning at Virginia Tech and against North Carolina, East Carolina now enters the easier portion of its schedule. The Pirates are off this Saturday before hosting Southern Methodist in two weeks. If the Pirates can take care of business when expected as double-digit favorites, as they are often likely to be, there are really only three pivotal games still remaining on their schedule: at Temple on Nov. 1, at Cincinnati on Nov. 22, and against Central Florida on Dec. 4, a night game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

That’s really all that stands between East Carolina and the berth in one of the four CFP bowls not hosting a semifinal that goes to the top-ranked team from the “Group of Five” non-power conferences. That’ll be up to the selection committee, but beating a North Carolina team that has been in and out of the top-25 all season in such dramatic fashion certainly made an appropriate statement.

“I didn’t think it would get that bad,” Duke receiver Jamison Crowder said. “I was definitely surprised. I was just like, ‘Dang, that’s crazy. That’s a lot of points.’”

As for the Blue Devils, it only gets tougher from here. Saturday’s game at Miami is arguably the most difficult on their schedule, and they still have to travel to Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

So Duke and East Carolina may not play each other, but for the second year in a row they’ll face off in the court of public opinion for in-state bragging rights. N.C. State – or even North Carolina – may yet wedge its way into the frame, but for now, it’s status quo from last fall.

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