It was fun while it lasted.
It was fun, for a few weeks, to imagine North Carolina, the state, as something like a mini version of the state of Florida, circa mid-1990s. And OK, perhaps that’s an exaggeration and nobody thought of things that way, but still. Baby steps, after all, as this state continues to wait for its first nationally relevant program — let alone being home to three of them at the same time, a la the Florida of old.
And yet, these were rare times. Unprecedented times, even, what with Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest all starting 3-0, collectively, for the first time ever. Throw in Appalachian State’s win at Texas A&M two weeks ago, and North Carolina college football was back, baby — or, maybe here, for the first time? And then Saturday brought another reminder that, for whatever reason, this state just can’t have nice things in college football. At least not all at once.
The blame is not equally shared. Duke, after all, exceeded all expectations in even winning its first three games under first-year head coach Mike Elko. The Blue Devils have played with heart — not to mention a commendable amount of execution — and for once, and literally just this one time, there’s no shame in losing to Kansas, which under a newish head coach of its own has overachieved to an even greater degree.
Wake Forest on Saturday did its part, too, except for the winning. Which against Clemson is always the most difficult part of all. Still, though, the Demon Deacons were right there. Is Wake past the moral victory stage, after winning the ACC’s Atlantic Division last year, and with a team of elderly (for college) men? Possibly. But any time a team is within “a play here, a play there” against Clemson, you’re doing something right. Especially at Wake, given the myriad baked-in disadvantages.
Which brings us to the Tar Heels of North Carolina. And look, losing to Notre Dame in it of itself is not the problem. It’s not so much that it happened, but how it happened. And how it happened, mainly, was with another off-the-charts defensive debacle. Notre Dame arrived in Chapel Hill on Saturday with an anemic, not-good offense that all of a sudden looked like a throwback fantasy for any old-school football coach who has mentally never left the 1980s (or ‘70s, for that matter).
Which is to say Notre Dame ran, and ran some more and, when it tired of running, gained large chunks of yardage by throwing to Michael Mayer, its 265-pound tight end. Notre Dame in its first three games gained no more than 351 yards, nor had it averaged more than 5.27 yards per play.
Against UNC, the Fighting Irish gained 567 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per play. Afterward (and more on this in a bit), Mack Brown made it sound like Notre Dame was among the best teams in the country and perhaps it is, though that’d be something given it just lost against Marshall and also struggled to beat Cal.
Besides, why is it that every team seems to play its best offensive game against UNC?
The undefeated start for the Big Four is down to one remaining unbeaten.
And The One is N.C. State. What could go wrong? And speaking of ...
ONE BIG THING
We often use most of this space to look back at the weekend that was, but now it’s time to look ahead at the Saturday to come and pose a question: Is N.C. State’s upcoming game at Clemson the Wolfpack’s biggest game ever? One could make the argument. It’s the first time ever, for one, that State will play in a game that includes two top-10 teams. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be in the house and it’s the prime-time, nationally televised ABC game.
But hey — no pressure, Wolfpack. Just a once-in-a-generation opportunity, with your best team in years, to take the next step, seize control of the Atlantic Division and do it all on a national stage, with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit narrating it for the world to see. Nope. No pressure, at all. Not in the least.
THE HOTTEST TAKE*
“Yes, my school may have lost — but another school also lost, and in an arguably more embarrassing way than my school did. And so, therefore, my school — which, again, lost! — is superior to this other team that also lost.”
▪ a composite quote of fans of certain North Carolina schools, and perhaps one in particular, upon seeing Appalachian State lost on Saturday against James Madison.
* a take in which we sarcastically poke fun at a real, actual take. Not meant to be taken seriously.
THREE TO LIKE
1. N.C. State on Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium did what good teams should do against overmatched competition. The Wolfpack did not mess around (well, except for that fake field-goal attempt) in a 41-10 victory against Connecticut. State was fortunate to escape ECU back in Week 1, but the Wolfpack has more and more looked the part since — even while working through some growing pains on offense.
2. North Carolina does indeed have another 4-0 team. A shout out to the Eagles of N.C. Central, who moved to 4-0 with a 59-14 dismantling of Virginia-Lynchburg on Saturday. Up next for Central: a more challenging test against the Fighting Camels of Campbell, and under the lights, no less, on Saturday night in Buies Creek.
3. Here’s Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman’s line against Clemson on Saturday, in a double-overtime defeat: 20-for-29, 337 yards, six touchdown passes, no interceptions. If ever a player deserved to win a game like that — and make no mistake, it would’ve been Wake’s biggest win in years — it was Hartman, who personifies all the best things about college football.
THREE TO NOT LIKE
1. Is UNC’s defense the worst unit in the country, based on a talent-to-performance ratio? It’d take some work to find one that’s worse. There’s talent here, allegedly, if you believe in recruiting rankings (and just about every coach in the country certainly seems to). But the performance? Yikes. And also yikes: Brown saying he needed to see eight more games before he could properly evaluate it. Does Mack enjoy pain? Haven’t four games of this been enough?
2. Just when one North Carolina scribe goes out there and describes App State as the best FBS program in the state, the Mountaineers take an embarrassing loss against James Madison, which is attempting to replicate App’s successful transition from FCS to FBS. What it proved: The Mountaineers might be more like this state’s other programs than we originally thought, what with a proclivity to lose winnable games.
3. The ACC’s Atlantic Division might be as good as any division in college football. The Coastal, on the other hand, appears to be a disaster. Pittsburgh looks to be OK but, outside of the Panthers? It’s reminiscent of the GIF of the burning dumpster floating down a flooded street. In truth, we’d have it no other way, given the history of the Coastal and this being the ACC’s farewell to divisions and all.
1. Clemson (survived and advanced, and did so the week before hosting the Wolfpack); 2. N.C. State (judgment cometh, and that right soon); 3. Wake Forest (a moral-victory move-up here for the Demon Deacons); 4. North Carolina (maybe? It starts getting really muddled here, folks); 5. Appalachian State; 6. South Carolina; 7. Duke; 8. ECU; 9. Coastal Carolina; 10. Charlotte.
FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
▪ Couldn’t have asked for a much better early fall Saturday than the one Mother Nature delivered Chapel Hill on Saturday. The stage was set, Kenan Stadium was full and then ... well, then it was mostly all downhill for the Tar Heels once the game began. But a beautiful day!
▪ Cue the Grandpa-Simpson-yelling-at-a-cloud meme: Would it be too much to ask N.C. State to wear red and white (and not black) for what’s probably its most significant game in generations on Saturday?
▪ That’s 14 consecutive losses now for Wake against Clemson, and you wonder when the Demon Deacons will have another chance as good as they had Saturday to end that futility. A reminder of why it’s critical to take advantage of statement opportunities when they come along, because they’re infrequent. Wake couldn’t quite get it done. UNC wasn’t close against Notre Dame. And now, N.C. State, you’re on the clock.
▪ Another reminder that, yes, life indeed comes at you fast: We’re already one-third of the way through the regular season!