This is going to be controversial, to some. It’s going to be misunderstood, like when we began the discussion around this time a year ago about Appalachian State having the best college football program in North Carolina.
And yet it needs to be said. Because it’s true, for one. And because it’s timely, too, with Duke and UNC off to fast football starts, again, for the second consecutive year. And so here it is, some honesty that might be difficult to accept for a lot of folks in North Carolina:
There’s no longer any such thing as a “basketball school.” At least not in any major conference.
Call it blasphemy. Call it bologna. Call it bull, and even add an expletive or two of your choosing.
Nothing changes the reality or the fact that, in 2023 — and for a long while now — there’s not a major-conference school in the country that doesn’t understand the significance of football, and how it drives, well, everything at the highest level of college athletics.
This isn’t about the records at Duke and UNC, though they certainly help underscore the larger point. The Tar Heels are 3-0 for the 18th time since the formation of the ACC in 1953, and are 3-0 for the second consecutive season for the first time since 1996 and ‘97. The Blue Devils are 3-0 for the 17th time in the ACC era, and five of those 3-0 starts have come since 2014.
Together, Duke and UNC are both 3-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since ... wait for it ... 1935 and ‘36. Who among us doesn’t remember those halcyon days? Back when Wallace Wade (they named a stadium after him, if you didn’t know) was coaching the Blue Devils, and when Carl Snavely and Raymond Wolf led the Tar Heels.
Both UNC and especially Duke were somewhat national football powers then, with UNC peaking at No. 1 in 1948 and with Duke a regular top-10 or -15 program from the mid-1930s through the early 60s. And then you know the rest. Everett Case turned N.C. State basketball into a national power. UNC upped its game, and won the ‘57 national championship.
Dean Smith arrived in Chapel Hill. David Thompson in Raleigh. Mike Krzyzewski in Durham. Somewhere in there, Jim Valvano ran around a court in Albuquerque, looking for a hug. And college basketball became, and in some way remains, the dominant sport of interest in this state.
This isn’t about fan interest, though. If it was, one could still argue that Duke and UNC are basketball schools because, undoubtedly, there are more people who care about and follow their basketball teams — both established, national brands — than their football programs. That’s to be expected, given the tradition and their combined 11 NCAA championships.
Yes, basketball still matters. Just not nearly as much as football, which has been behind every major movement in college athletics for at least the past two decades. All this realignment at the highest level of college sports? All this chasing of television revenue? It’s all because of football, and there’s not an athletic director or university president or chancellor or conference commissioner who doesn’t understand the truth that if you’re behind in football, you risk being left behind, period.
Look at Duke, for instance, where it wasn’t all that long ago that a track still surrounded the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, which has undergone several rounds of transformation. Look at UNC, which has foregone major renovations at the Smith Center — showing its age more and more all the time — while upgrading football facilities and salaries. Look at Wake Forest, which over the past seven years has invested about $100 million in football facilities. Look at Kansas, which last month announced $300 million in improvements to its stadium and the surrounding area.
“It’s critically important,” Nina King, the Duke athletics director, told The News & Observer last year of improving in football. “We need to do well, so that we can have a seat at the table and really be a part of meaningful conversations relative to the ACC. We’re investing more, as we should be.”
Indeed, for a long time, it was fair and accurate to describe Duke and UNC as basketball schools. It’s a label that’s impossible to shake, given the history they share in that sport. And yet it’s not really accurate anymore, either. Just follow the money. In the ACC and in every major conference these days, they’re all football schools now.
ONE BIG THING
Speaking of the above is it possible, somehow, maybe that the ACC ... could be ... the best football conference in the country? Here are the talking points, if one were to make such an argument:
Through the first three weeks of the season, the ACC has eight wins over SEC and Big Ten schools, while the rest of the country has seven, combined. There are seven undefeated ACC teams, second-most of any other league. And eight undefeated ACC teams in non-conference play, also second-most of any other league.
Yes, there have been some rough moments, too — Boston College losing to Northern Illinois; Virginia Tech losing badly to Rutgers — but the ACC actually has an argument for being the best league in the country. At least a much stronger one than usual.
OK, hear me out: Are you sure, ACC, that the ink is dry on that contract with Stanford? The Cardinal suffered through a 30-23 defeat Saturday against the Sacramento State Hornets of the FCS’ Big Sky Conference. (Thanks, Google.) There are a couple of ways to look at this. One, Stanford is getting all of its Very Bad Football out of its system before joining the ACC. Or, that the realization of joining the ACC has caused a despair that made such a defeat possible.
THREE TO LIKE
1. Drake Maye returning to form. It’d been a while — six games! — since Maye turned in the kind of performance he did on Saturday during UNC’s 31-13 victory against Minnesota. The numbers: 414 yards passing and two touchdowns, and completions in 29 of his 40 attempts, plus two interceptions that he can stew about and use as motivation. After a pair of good-but-not-great games to start the season, Maye is somewhat off the national radar. Would anyone be surprised if he quickly finds his way back on it if UNC keeps winning? (Answer: No.)
2. Duke, dominating. As colleague Luke DeCock wrote, good teams win — but great teams cover (and betting lines are for entertainment purposes only, folks). Is it possible that the Blue Devils continue to be underrated and overlooked, even amid a near-perfect 3-0 start? None of those games have been close. Duke beat Clemson by 21, FCS Lafayette by 35 and Northwestern, on Saturday, by 24. Note to the oddsmakers: continue to disrespect Duke at your own peril.
3. Boone shining, again. The best in-state atmosphere of the weekend belonged to Appalachian State, where a record crowd of more than 40,000 watched the Mountaineers’ 43-28 victory against ECU. Well, it actually tied the attendance record at Kidd Brewer Stadium, which also hosted more than 40,000 for App State’s close loss last season against UNC. With the mountain scenery and the cooler weather in the High Country, there’s few better college football environments anywhere than what they’ve got at App, especially when the place is rocking as it was Saturday.
THREE TO ... NOT LIKE AS MUCH
1. N.C. Central’s rough trip west. It was always going to be a tall ask for NCCU to keep it close at UCLA but it would’ve been a great story, nonetheless, had the Eagles given the Bruins a game inside the Rose Bowl on Saturday. As it was, NCCU found itself down big, early, and that was mostly that. As Eagles coach Trei Oliver put it two years ago, though, when the game was announced, this was still “the experience of a lifetime.”
2. We interrupt your reading for a television timeout. [And, starting now, here’s what feels like 10 to 12 minutes worth of commercials.] How is it that college football instituted these rules changes to speed up the game — like a running clock, and it not stopping after first downs — and yet the timeouts, themselves, seem longer and longer? The droning-on of TV timeouts was especially noticeable during the UNC-Minnesota game, when, at one point, a kickoff was sandwiched between two long commercial breaks. Feels like the powers-that-be weren’t so much concerned with making games shorter, but squeezing in more air time for commercials.
3. And we ask again: Is everything OK in Greenville? That was a gut punch of a defeat for ECU at App State for a variety of reasons but foremost among them is probably this: The Mountaineers have become the program that ECU used to be. Which is to say that App is now (and has been) the punch-above-its-weight, thorn-in-the-side of schools with bigger followings and more resources. These things are cyclical and ECU will have its time, again, at some point. But for now there’s a sizable gulf between the state’s biggest non-ACC programs.
THIS WEEK’S BEST PROGRAM IN THE STATE
It has to be Duke, which won its fifth consecutive game and is now 12-4 in Mike Elko’s first 16 games as head coach. Consider where the Blue Devils were when Elko arrived before last season. They’d lost 17 of their past 18 ACC games at that point. They’d sunken back into the depths that former coach David Cutcliffe led them out of. It was a program in disarray, and in bad shape. And now look. And look ahead, too: Barring what would be a stunning letdown this weekend at Connecticut, Duke will be 4-0 and in the top 15 when Notre Dame comes to Durham on Sept. 30.
1. Duke; 2. North Carolina (UNC hasn’t won at Pitt, where it travels Saturday, since 2017); 3. Clemson; 4. South Carolina (the Gamecocks could’ve delivered the Tar Heels the best transitive property win in the country Saturday but, alas); 5. Appalachian State; 6. N.C. State (Good news: The Wolfpack found an offense Saturday. Bad news: It was against VMI); 7. Wake Forest (let us not speak of the first three quarters at Old Dominion); 8. Coastal Carolina; 9. ECU; 10. Charlotte.
FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
-I think I’m getting 2007 vibes from the first few weeks of this season. If you remember, 2007 was maybe the wackiest college football season of the past 30 or 40 years. Many an upset. No real dominant teams. Sounding familiar? So far this season, Alabama looks mortal. Georgia almost lost to South Carolina. Colorado is a national story. The ACC, one could argue, is as good as any league. It’s early and things change but it feels wide open.
-I think that leads, naturally, to the next major point, which is this: There might not be a better time for the Triangle schools to make a move. UNC and Duke have positioned themselves as legitimate ACC contenders here in the first month. N.C. State’s defense should keep it close in just about every game. If a Triangle school is ever going to win the ACC again, there aren’t many years that will be as wide open as this one.
-I think the Tez Walker story isn’t going away, as much as the NCAA would like it to. Mack Brown is going to continue to talk about it. Walker’s teammates at UNC are going to continue to fight for him, as they did Saturday while wearing shirts in support of him. A legal case, and it feels like one is brewing, would be a major national story in college athletics — and it could be coming soon.
-I think the first few weeks of this season underscore why college football is heading in a terrible direction. For once, it seems like there’s a decent amount of parity. You have a bunch of teams, from a bunch of leagues, all thinking they have a shot, and believing. The people running the sport should’ve made an effort to preserve it in its current form. As it is, this all feels like the end of this version of college football.