NC college football teams share misery of disappointment

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North Carolina’s Josh Downs (11) reacts after dropping a pass from quarterback Drake Maye on fourth down with 4:10 to play in the fourth quarter on Saturday, November 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Tar Heels fell to the Yellowjackets 21-17.

rwillett@newsobserver.com

If one needed a reminder that time is a flat circle as it relates to college football in North Carolina — that most of the FBS programs in this state go round and round, repeating cycles of disappointment year after year — then, well, Saturday provided one. It was disappointing, indeed. It was, too, the sort of day that could’ve inspired any college football follower around here to say:

“We’ve seen this show before.”

Yes.

Let us recap the Saturday that was for North Carolina’s four ACC schools. Wake Forest struggled to beat Syracuse in what turned out to be the best result of the day among the Big Four. It wasn’t pretty but, hey, praise be to the Demon Deacons for ending a three-game losing streak. While they were departing the wagon of misery, their in-state ACC brethren climbed aboard.

Duke lost. N.C. State lost, and looked bad doing it. And, worst of all, North Carolina lost in inexplicable fashion to Georgia Tech, which, you may remember, began the season so poorly it lost its head coach to an early season firing. On the surface, the Tar Heels’ defeat doesn’t make sense. After all, they had so much in their favor entering Saturday.

Drake Maye had become a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and probably the best chance for anyone in North Carolina to win that award since Charlie Justice in the late-1940s. UNC had an outside shot of playing its way into the College Football Playoff. The Tar Heels were in the midst of their best seasons since 2015, and one of their best in decades.

So, on the one hand, UNC losing to a not-so-great Georgia Tech team is baffling. And yet on the other, it’s not so baffling at all. This is college football in North Carolina, after all. We’ve seen days like Saturday, ones full of defeat and disappointment, many, many a time. This particular Saturday, in fact, rekindled the memory of another 20 years earlier.

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Georgia Tech’s Myles Sims (0) celebrates the Yellowjackets’ 21-17 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, November 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The most experienced (meaning: old) of area college football aficionados might remember it. A Triangle team in 2002 was in the midst of one of its best seasons ever. Its fans were starting to dream impossible dreams. It had a generational talent at quarterback. And here came Georgia Tech, up from Atlanta, to try to spoil the party.

Sound familiar?

N.C. State, 9-0 at that point in 2002, expected to beat those Yellow Jackets — just like the Tar Heels, who were 9-1 entering Saturday, expected to beat these Yellow Jackets. And yet, well, you know what happened. Even the scores were similar, with State losing 24-17 in 2002 and UNC losing 21-17 on Saturday.

Same opponent. Same kind of letdown. Same disappointment.

Of course, UNC has a chance to change the narrative, and in a big way, when it plays in the ACC championship game in a couple weeks. The Tar Heels haven’t won a conference title since 1980. After Saturday, though, do you really want to get your hopes up?

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North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) picks up 12 yards in the second quarter against Georgia Tech on Saturday, November 19, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

ONE BIG THING

While North Carolina schools were tripping over themselves Saturday, their neighbors south of the border turned in a pair of impressive performances. As it turns out, Clemson’s demise was a bit overstated, no? Another 10-win season for the Tigers, who punctuated a perfect 8-0 mark in the ACC with a 40-10 victory against Miami.

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Clemson running back Phil Mafah (26) is pursued by Miami cornerback Tyrique Stevenson in the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman) Jacob Kupferman AP

South Carolina, meanwhile, continues its gradual ascent under Shane Beamer. The Gamecocks’ 63-38 victory against then-No. 5 Tennessee provided a warning, of sorts, that Beamer is building something in Columbia. That’s not the greatest of developments for North Carolina and N.C. State.

THE HOTTEST TAKE*

“Fire Dave Doeren!” or, “I hope Dave leaves!”

Yes, variations of this take are “out there,” as they say, and beginning to spread. Here’s the thing, though: For one, Doeren is not on the hot seat at N.C. State. Not even close. And two, as much of a disappointment as this season has been for a team that started with ACC championship aspirations, State is still trending to meet or exceed its historical norm. And three, be careful what you wish for, N.C. State fans. Look at basketball after Herb Sendek left.

* a take in which we sarcastically poke fun at a real, actual take. Not meant to be taken seriously.

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North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Louisville in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Timothy D. Easley AP

THREE TO LIKE

1. These have not been the best of times for Wake Forest, which had lost three consecutive games after entering the top 10. Down 21-10 Saturday at home against Syracuse, it looked a bit like the Demon Deacons were content to get the season over with. Then they scored 35 consecutive points. It was a fitting home finale for Sam Hartman who, after throwing four touchdown passes Saturday, is now three away from tying the ACC record.

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Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) throws a pass against Syracuse during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) Chuck Burton AP

2. UNC football fans have taken a fair share of heat over the years for, well, not being the most enthusiastic or committed bunch. They did their part, though, in filling Kenan Stadium and providing the look and feel of a big-game environment Saturday. If only Mack Brown and Company had rewarded the effort with a better performance.

3. It was a brutal week in college football, and especially the ACC, following the tragedy at Virginia and the death of three players who were killed by a gunman. If there’s any solace to be taken from such an awful event, it’s in the way teams throughout the ACC, and the nation, have come together in support of Virginia. In these divisive times, sports remain a powerful unifier.

THREE TO … NOT LIKE AS MUCH

1. Well, the Drake Maye Heisman campaign was fun while it lasted. As Brown has said, the Heisman is a team award, and UNC failed as a team Saturday. Maye showed he’s human, after all, but still gave his team a chance to win in the final moments, with a well-thrown pass that Josh Downs dropped in the end zone. For once, it was the offense that failed to come through for UNC.

2. N.C. State continues to play hard, at least, and that’s to be commended. Even with the mounting injuries, though, and the loss of its top two quarterbacks, the offensive execution and play-calling leaves much to be desired. The Wolfpack faded in the fourth quarter of a 25-10 loss at Louisville, and at this point it’s fair to wonder how much State has left in the tank.

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North Carolina State quarterback Ben Finley (10) is brought down by Louisville linebacker Yasir Abdullah (22) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Timothy D. Easley AP

3. Admittedly a grumpy-old-man take here, but why does every game on the ACC Network sound as though it’s being broadcast from a library? Granted, the home environments for some of those games aren’t great, anyway, but the crowd noise — quiet as it might be at times — always seems to be lost on ACC Network broadcasts. Is it bad microphones? Lower-end cameras? Inquiring minds want to know.

CAROLINAS RANKING

1. Clemson (back at No. 1!); 2. South Carolina (the new Beamer Ball: scoring 63 points and beating a top-5 opponent); 3. Coastal Carolina (yes, a point is being made here in ranking all of South Carolina’s teams among the top three); 4. North Carolina; 5. N.C. State; 6. Wake Forest; 7. Duke; 8. Appalachian State; 9. ECU; 10. Charlotte.

FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

I think Maye still deserves to be in New York City as a Heisman finalist, though his next two performances will have a lot to say about that.

I think, again, that some of the greatest joy for fans of North Carolina teams continues to be watching their rivals fail. Last week, UNC fans had a good chuckle as N.C. State lost to Boston College. UNC’s loss to Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is among the highlights of the season for State fans. This is college football in North Carolina.

I think the Clemson-South Carolina game has as much intrigue as it’s had in a long, long time. Clemson has won seven in a row and all but the 2015 game were blowouts. Last year, the Tigers won 30-0. Who knows if the Gamecocks win later this week, but there’s a strong chance it’s at least much more competitive than these games have been.

I think if I were a betting man, I’d stay far, far away from the State-UNC game. Seems like the Tar Heels should win with relative ease and it seems like the Wolfpack won’t be able to score all that often, even against a questionable defense. Funny things tend to happen when these two get together, though, and Friday has the feeling of pervasive weirdness. Embrace it.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.

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