Take the field with the NC State Wolfpack
The college football season starts this week. Well, sorta.
ACC coaches and players will be talking about college football this week at the annual ACC kickoff in Charlotte on Thursday and Friday.
It has been six months since Clemson won the national championship, and we’ll have to wait another seven weeks until Wake Forest and Presbyterian get the season going for real on Aug. 31, so for now talk will have to suffice.
The ACC has a lot to talk – and brag – about after perhaps its best season ever in 2016, which saw the league emerge as the best in the country.
But last year only counts for last year. None of the points, or wins over the SEC, carry over to this year.
Three story lines to watch heading into the ACC kickoff:
1) And for the encore?
It was Jay-Z, on the aptly named “Encore,” who asked: “Do you want more?”
The ACC went 10-4 against the SEC last year, including a 4-1 mark in the postseason, to stake its claim of conference supremacy.
But the SEC didn’t become the most dominant conference in college football overnight. It strung together seven straight championship years, by four different teams, from 2006 to ’12.
The ACC started making its case in 2013. It has had two different teams (Florida State won the last BCS title in ’13) win a national title in the past four years and has a 23-20 head-to-head mark against the SEC since the start of the ’13 season (including 19-13 over the past three years).
The ACC and SEC are scheduled to meet nine times during the regular season in ’17, including three neutral-site games in the opening weekend. The matchup of preseason conference favorites, Florida State and Alabama, in Atlanta on Sept. 2 will go a long way in shaping the College Football Playoff race.
2) Who’s the real “sleeping giant?”
Usually North Carolina gets the dubious “sleeping giant” tag from the national media in the offseason, but it’s N.C. State’s turn this year. The Wolfpack returns the bulk of its starters from a team that went 7-6 a year ago and was a handful of plays away from being 10-3.
N.C. State has a difficult schedule to navigate, starting with the opener against South Carolina in Charlotte, but is poised for a breakout in coach Dave Doeren’s fifth season. Much of the success of the season will hinge on the development of junior quarterback Ryan Finley.
Success is a relative concept on the Atlantic Division side — with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville to go through — but this has the potential to be Doeren’s best team and the school’s first top 25 finish since 2010.
UNC, 8-4 last year, has wholesale changes to make on offense and has to prove it can play defense without coordinator Gene Chizik pulling the strings. On the plus side, the Tar Heels have a much more manageable schedule than last season and without the burden of expectations from recent campaigns.
3) Are Duke and Wake Forest headed in opposite directions?
The in-state private schools essentially switched spots last year. Duke went from 8-5 in 2015 to 4-8 and Wake Forest jumped up from 3-9 to 7-6. Will they continue on their respective paths?
It’s hard to say. Both have reason to be optimistic about this season with good options at quarterback and smart coaches. But here’s the thing about the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons: they have rarely been “good” at the same time.
The Devils and Deacs have never been to a bowl game in the same season. They have finished with a winning record in ACC play only twice (1964 and ’70) in the same season. The last time they both finished a season with an overall record above .500 was 1988.
Duke showed flashes of promise in one of the more rewarding 4-win seasons ever recorded (an inspiring road win at Notre Dame and a division-title spoiling win over rival UNC), but the Devils need to clean it up defensively. They gave up 96 points in their final two games.
The trick for the Demon Deacons, now in Year 4 under Dave Clawson, is to build on last year’s success. It’s relatively easy to go from bad to average (for all its progress, Wake was still only 3-5 in the ACC). It’s exponentially more difficult to sustain a winning program and then make the jump from good to great.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio