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North Carolina coach Mack Brown acknowledges the student section as he leaves the field following the Tar Heels’ 42-24 victory over Pitt on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown acknowledges the student section as he leaves the field following the Tar Heels’ 42-24 victory over Pitt on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.

rwillett@newsobserver.com

The state of college football in North Carolina entering November brings to mind a humorous meme. Perhaps you’ve seen it on Twitter, or elsewhere. It’s the one with an elderly-looking man getting held up near his car. He pretends to suffer a medical emergency and pleads with his would-be robber to call an ambulance.

“But not for me,” he says a second later, revealing that he’s armed and ready to defend himself.

This comes to mind because this is usually a vulnerable time for college football aficionados in this state. It’s a time, usually, when a lot of North Carolina college football fans are ready to put to bed another disappointing season and move on to the sport for which this state is best known.

“It’s time for college basketball season,” a lot of them might say early every November.

“But not for me,” they can say now, finally, with pretty much every in-state FBS team entering the final month of the regular season with something to play for.

These are rare times, especially, for North Carolina’s Big Four ACC schools. All of them enter November with winning records. North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest are already bowl eligible, and Duke is on track to be.

If the Blue Devils get there, and they need one more victory, then it’ll be the first time that all four schools will have played in a bowl in the same season (barring an N.C. State-like 2021 Holiday Bowl fiasco). Simply put, college football seasons like this don’t happen often in North Carolina. More precisely, a season like this has pretty much never happened.

Entering the final month of the regular season, let’s take a quick look at the reasons for hope for each of the Big Four, in order of who should be most hopeful:

1. North Carolina: Two comforting words for the Tar Heels and their supporters everywhere: Drake Maye. Seven more words of comfort: UNC has him, and other teams don’t. It looks like that’s going to be enough for the Tar Heels to win the Coastal Division — and in the final year of the ACC’s divisional format, no less — and if they can get to Charlotte, then who knows.

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North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) breaks away from Pitt’s SirVocea Dennis (7) for seven yards in the third quarter against Pitt on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Maye had 61 yards rushing in the Tar Heels’ victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The question of a potential ACC championship game against Clemson, though, might not be whether UNC’s slowly improving defense could hang with the Tigers. It could be whether Clemson’s defense, which is very good, no doubt, can do enough to slow Maye and the Tar Heels’ offense. No one has really done that. The greatest reason for UNC hope: Maye will be back for at least one more season.

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North Carolina’s Storm Duck breaks up a pass intended for Pitt’s Jared Wayne (5) on fourth down in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over to the Tar Heels on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

2. N.C. State: The Wolfpack here, second in hope, instead of Wake Forest? Call it the MJ Morris effect. Before Morris rescued State last Thursday night against Virginia Tech, one could easily envision the prospect of the Wolfpack’s season careening off a cliff — looking something not unlike that old “Saturday Night Live” skit with Toonces the cat driving a car into a ravine.

Well, what a difference a quarterback makes. Morris, only a freshman, led State to an improbable comeback and all of a sudden the Wolfpack looks like it might just have an offense. If indeed that’s true, the defense is good enough to keep State in every remaining game.

3. Wake Forest: The trajectory of establishing a consistently winning program rarely follows a straight, diagonal line upward. There’s going to be some rough moments, some opportunities for growth, to frame things optimistically. The Demon Deacons’ 48-21 loss against Louisville on Saturday was a stunner, no doubt, but in a sense that goes to show how far Wake has come. Wasn’t all that long ago when a result like this would not have been a surprise. Now it is.

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Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) is sacked by Louisville defensive back Kei’Trel Clark (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. Timothy D. Easley AP

Sam Hartman is still one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Wake still has the necessary pieces to finish with 10 regular-season wins. If it happens, it’d be the first time ever it has won 10 games in consecutive seasons. Dave Clawson has the Demon Deacons built for the long haul, though it has indeed been a while since Wake has had to respond to the kind of loss it suffered at Louisville.

4. Duke: Who knows how the rest of the season will play out for the Blue Devils. With games remaining against Boston College and Virginia Tech, bowl eligibility shouldn’t be a problem. The greatest reasons for hope here, though, are more about the long term. In his first season as head coach, Mike Elko has resuscitated what had become a dormant program. Duke already has two ACC wins — one more than it had the previous two seasons combined.

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Duke coach Mike Elko watches the North Carolina players warm up prior to their game on Saturday, October 15, 2022 at Wallace-Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

ONE BIG THING

Seems like the entirety of North Carolina’s fourth-quarter performance Saturday night would qualify as one big thing. At the end of the third, the Tar Heels trailed Pittsburgh 24-21. UNC quickly scored the go-ahead touchdown near the start of the fourth and then did not relent, and outscored Pitt 21-0 over the final 15 minutes of a 42-24 victory. Might we look back at that fourth quarter as a turning point, of sorts, that launched UNC into a new football stratosphere? Time will tell. One thing’s clear enough: The Tar Heels took control of the Coastal Division.

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North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye congratulates Elijah Green (21) after Green’s game winning touchdown on a two yard run to give the Tar Heels’ 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter against Pitt on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

THE HOTTEST TAKE*

“Meh — I’m still not going to include Drake Maye on my Heisman list. Because, well, reasons.”

— any college football writer, broadcaster or pundit who still isn’t thinking of Maye as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

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

THREE TO LIKE

1. This has not been the kind of season, to this point, that N.C. State wanted or expected. But say this of the Wolfpack: It’s resilient. There’s no quit there. Was it ideal that State had to rally in desperate fashion to beat lowly Virginia Tech last Thursday night? It was not. But coming back from a 21-3 deficit revealed something about State’s character — the same sort of thing that the Wolfpack showed in similar circumstances earlier this season against Florida State.

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N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) celebrates after sacking Virginia Tech quarterback Grant Wells (6) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Virginia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

2. Sometimes something is so bad, it has to be appreciated for its unique, heinous beauty. Consider “The Room,” which has become a cult sensation because it’s arguably the worst film ever made. In a similar way, Miami’s 14-12 victory on Saturday must be commended for its ugliness. Two bad teams. A terrible, no-good game. And one that took four overtimes to decide! It was a thing of beauty, in its own way, and a perfect encapsulation of the Coastal Division.

3. Well, maybe all it took was a coaching change, after all. Charlotte responded to the firing of Will Healy with its best performance of the season on Saturday — a 56-23 victory against Rice. It was the 49ers’ first conference victory of the season and, while it remains a not-great look to fire a coach midseason, Charlotte played with more life than it had in quite some time.

THREE TO … NOT LIKE AS MUCH

1. The ACC has spent a lot of time trying to address the quality of its football product, and the bottom of the league has revealed itself to be as bad as it has been in a long time. Boston College lost to Connecticut, of all teams, on Saturday. Miami and Virginia engaged in the aforementioned pillow fight of the ages. Virginia Tech has its worst team in forever. None of this is good for a conference in desperate need of an image overhaul.

2. Speaking of not-great things as it relates to the conference: It’s a bad look, indeed, for N.C. State’s upcoming game against Wake Forest to be cast off to the ACC Network, and the Land of the Strange Infomercial, in favor of Florida State-Miami, which is getting the network prime-time treatment. Sure, FSU-Miami has name recognition. Yada, yada. The reality is it hasn’t been a relevant rivalry for years, while State-Wake is one of the most important games in the Atlantic Division this season.

3. We joke about the Coastal and it’s all in good fun, mostly. But in the final year of the ACC’s divisional format, Atlantic teams not named Clemson do indeed have a legitimate gripe about the imbalance of the divisions. UNC could very well win the Coastal without having played a single good team in its division. Pitt has been up and down. Miami has been a disaster. If the Tar Heels don’t want to hear about how weak their division is, it’s critical they beat Wake Forest and N.C. State in the coming weeks.

CAROLINAS RANKING

1. Clemson; 2. North Carolina (feel free to reserve those rooms in Charlotte, UNC fans); 3. Wake Forest (a one-off letdown Saturday or a sign of deeper trouble?); 4. N.C. State (which would rank higher, perhaps, in fortitude); 5. Duke; 6. South Carolina (one step forward, two back for the Gamecocks after losing Saturday); 7. ECU and App State and Coastal Carolina in a three-way tie here; 10. Charlotte.

FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

I think Maye might just be the ACC’s best quarterback since … Trevor Lawrence? Which, OK, isn’t from all that long ago. Maye leads the nation in total offense, averaging 388.8 yards per game, and his passing numbers are as good or better than any leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Looks like he’ll probably go until the regular season-finale against State before playing another good defense, though.

I think N.C. Central deserves a lot of credit for navigating a lot of larger adversity facing its athletic department, and the MEAC, in the midst of what’s more and more becoming a memorable season. The Eagles won again Saturday, a 28-21 victory at Delaware State that left Central with a 6-2 record (2-1 in conference). The MEAC is a league in turmoil, but Central has been a bright spot.

I think maybe, just maybe, Morris should’ve played a lot more for State against Syracuse earlier this month. The Wolfpack offense came to life (finally) in the second half last Thursday night, which portends good things. But it’s also hard not to wonder what might’ve been possible had State gone with Morris earlier and opened things up more.

I think State-Wake on Saturday is even more important with Wake coming off of a loss. You suddenly have two desperate teams here. The Wolfpack can turn a mildly disappointing season into the makings of a successful one if it can reverse its recent bad mojo against Wake. The Demon Deacons, meanwhile, need a win to prove that the meltdown at Louisville was but a blip.

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N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren heads onto the field with the team before N.C. State’s game against Virginia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

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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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