Luke DeCock

Triangle’s football teams enjoying era of collective success

UNC coach Larry Fedora talks with Duke coach David Cutcliffe prior to the Tar Heels' 2014 game against the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
UNC coach Larry Fedora talks with Duke coach David Cutcliffe prior to the Tar Heels' 2014 game against the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. News & Observer File Photo

Who knew these were the salad days?

As far as football in the Triangle, this is as good as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have collectively been in a long time, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Last season, all three schools went to a bowl game for only the second time ever. They have combined to post a combined 20 or more wins three years in a row, only the second time that’s happened.

And while the regular season now extends to 12 games and schedules are watered down with lower-level opponents, preventing any real comparison to campaigns of yore, this football season has the potential to be record-setting in its own way for the Triangle tripartite.

Realistically, all three schools could go to bowl games again.

Potentially, all three schools could win eight games, something that hasn’t happened in 20 years.

Possibly, the three schools could set the all-time record for combined wins, which stands at 25. Someone might even win an ACC division title in the process.

The standards may be low, but these are the glory days, or at least as close as the Triangle figures to get for a while.

25 Most combined wins in one season (1994)

23 Combined wins last season

The real glory days of football in the Triangle, when Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all regularly won ACC titles in the 1960s and early ’70s, are probably never coming back. After the addition of Florida State and two expansion cycles, the bar is slightly higher than it was back then.

So short of one of the three schools generating a national-title contender – something that doesn’t appear to be on the immediate horizon – this season could, potentially, set a modern high-water mark for the Triangle, collectively speaking.

Only nine years ago, football in the Triangle hit its absolute nadir, when Duke (zero), North Carolina (three) and N.C. State (three) combined for six wins. Less than a decade later, it has a chance to hit its modern peak

Wins aren’t the greatest metric to compare teams and eras because schedule strength varies and, over time, seasons have gotten longer, but they’re still what it’s all about, the number remembered above all else in the years to come. Last season’s combined 23 wins were the most since 1994 and only the 14th time in the past 60 years the three Triangle teams were able to get to 20 wins.

That makes this a sort of golden era, at least the first since the early ’90s when North Carolina and N.C. State were both winning regularly and Duke joined the party, briefly, in 1994. The three schools posted four straight seasons of 20-plus wins then. They could – and should – do it again now.

If wins over Division I-AA (FCS, if you must) teams are taken out of the equation, the current three-year run is slightly less impressive, since nine of those 64 wins were against FCS teams.

In 1963, when the three schools combined for 22 wins and finished 1-2-3 in the ACC, they each played 10 or 11 games, all against what was unquestionably top-level competition. Their nonconference opponents were California, Navy, Michigan State and Southern Mississippi along with future ACC rivals Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State. In 1994, when the three schools combined for 25 wins in an 11-game schedule, 24 came against I-A teams.

However many games the three schools combine to win this season, it’s a sure bet four will come against FCS opposition – N.C. State plays Eastern Kentucky, North Carolina plays Delaware and North Carolina A&T, and Duke plays N.C. Central. And only three of 12 nonconference opponents are from power conferences.

Still, it’s rare enough that these schools combine for 20 wins, let alone four seasons in a row, that it’s worth recognizing if and when it happens.

Only nine years ago, football in the Triangle hit its absolute nadir, when Duke (zero), North Carolina (three) and N.C. State (three) combined for six wins. Less than a decade later, it has a chance to hit its modern peak.

Triple the wins

Since the first season of ACC football in 1953, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have combined for 20 or more wins 14 times, including each of the past three seasons. Five times, the three schools have won 22 or more games:

1994: 25 N.C. State 9-3, North Carolina 8-4, Duke 8-4

1972: 24 North Carolina 11-1*, N.C. State 8-3, Duke 5-6

2014: 23 Duke 9-4, N.C. State 8-5, North Carolina 6-7

1963: 22 North Carolina 9-2*, N.C. State 8-3*, Duke 5-4-1

1974: 22 N.C. State 9-2-1, North Carolina 7-5, Duke 6-5

* won or shared ACC championship

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