2018 football season already coming into focus

Clemson still the ACC frontrunner

NC State quarterback Ryan Finley hands the ball off to running back Nyheim Hines during NC State's game against Boston College at Alumni Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports)

Alabama rallied late Monday night in Atlanta to beat Georgia in overtime and claim college football’s official national championship. Meanwhile in Orlando, the nation’s only undefeated team — Central Florida — held a parade to celebrate a self-proclaimed “national title.”

Even with a playoff that was supposed to end this kind of debate, the conversation over how the national champion is crowned and who should get the chance to play for it only has only intensified.

But for all the talking points that have been generated by a postseason in which the last team standing was one that didn’t even win its division, let alone its conference, one thing is beyond discussion: The 2017 bowl cycle was a good one for teams from North Carolina. And for many of those programs, the positive momentum has carried over into the new year.

Here’s a recap of how things transpired and where each of the state’s highest profile teams stand as they look ahead to 2018:

NC State

Even without All-American defensive end Bradley Chubb, who decided to sit out the Wolfpack’s Sun Bowl game against Arizona State to help protect his lofty NFL Draft status, coach Dave Doeren’s team put an exclamation point on its season by beating the Sun Devils 52-31 in El Paso.

The win was State’s ninth, marking only the 11th time in 125 football seasons that it has won that many games in a year.

Chances for further ascension have improved considerably since the team’s return from El Paso with Doeren receiving a contract extension following a brief flirtation with Tennessee and quarterback Ryan Finley deciding to return for his final season of eligibility.

His return coupled with junior running back Nyheim Hines and 1,000-yard wide receiver Kelvin Harmon gives the Wolfpack one of the most potent offensive attacks in the ACC heading into next season.

Wake Forest

The Deacons also finished their season on high note — and a high-scoring note — by battling from behind twice for a 55-52 win against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl.

The victory against an SEC opponent was significant, not only because it showed that Wake is capable of holding its own against one of college football’s big boys, but because it represented another step forward in coach Dave Clawson’s remarkable rebuilding effort.

The Deacons finished 3-9 in his first two seasons before winning seven in 2016. The Belk Bowl win was their eighth of 2017.

And while seniors such as linebacker Grant Dawson, defensive end Duke Ejiofor, record-setting tight end Cam Serigne and quarterback John Wolford are gone, there is enough returning talent on hand to suggest that Wake still has room for further improvement in 2018.

One player that won’t be around to help take the next step is Jessie Bates III. The redshirt sophomore safety decided to enter the NFL Draft.


The Blue Devils completed a remarkable turnaround that saw them bounce back from a six-game midseason losing streak to win their final three games, capped by a 36-14 trouncing of Northern Illinois in the QuickLane Bowl in Detroit.

Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones piled up 338 yards of total defense and the defense pitched a second half shutout, as Duke scored the game’s final 22 points on the way to a victory that ensured its fourth winning season in the last five years.

“I felt like these young men cared enough about each other to climb back and accomplish something like this,” coach Dave Cutcliffe said. “It was a really outstanding victory for us.”

Cutcliffe then got good news for next season. Four-star offensive lineman Jack Wohlabaugh, who was once the nation’s No. 4 center prospect, announced his decision to transfer to Duke from Ohio State.

Appalachian State

The Mountaineers ended 2017 the same way they did the previous year, with a win against Toledo in a postseason bowl game. This time, though, they did it in much more emphatic fashion with a 34-0 shutdown of the Rockets at the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

Junior running back Jalin Moore churned out 125 yards and three touchdowns to complement a defense that held the high-scoring Rockets to just 146 yards and eight first downs.

With the victory, the Mountaineers became the first program ever to win bowls in their first three seasons after transitioning from the FCS level to FBS. They are just the second team to play in the postseason in each of its first three years at the FBS level — joining Marshall, which went to six straight bowls from 1997-2002.


The Aggies capped a magical season by beating Grambling in the Celebration Bowl 21-14 to win their second Historically Black Colleges and Universities national championship in three years and become the first team in MEAC history to go undefeated.

In the days following the victory, 62-year-old coach Rod Broadway — whose contract expired after the 2017 season — announced that he was considering retirement.

It’s a move he made official on Monday by announcing his decision to go out on top, leaving the head coaching responsibilities to defensive coordinator Sam Washington.

“I started out wanting to be a coach when I was in the sixth grade,” Broadway said recently. “I guess I’m one lucky guy to have an opportunity to live my dream.”


The Tar Heels missed out on a bowl for the first time since 2012 after going 3-9, but coach Larry Fedora’s team can take solace that it heads into the postseason having won two of its last three. UNC can also look forward to starting over from scratch with a healthy roster after a spate of injuries that saw 21 players listed as “out for the season” for its season finale against rival NC State.

“We’ll go back and evaluate everything, everything that we do in this program,” Fedora said. “We never stop doing that. We’ll try to tweak things to make them better. Hopefully, we’re going to get a bunch of guys healed up and then we’ll be ready to go.”

Several young players who were forced into service by all of the Tar Heels’ injuries will play key roles in 2018, including running back Michael Carter, safety Myles Wolfolk, and quarterbacks Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt. The only downer of the offseason came when linebacker Andre Smith, the team’s leading tackler at the time of his injury, decided to forego his senior season for the NFL Draft.


Scottie Montgomery drew a line in the sand for both himself and the Pirates after completing a second straight 3-9 season by proclaiming that his team would win at least six games and qualify for a bowl in 2018.

“I haven’t given a whole lot of guarantees since I got here, but we’ll be a better football team and we’re going to go play in the postseason next year,” Montgomery said after a season-ending loss at Memphis.

In order to make that happen, the third-year coach has completely revamped his staff. defensive coordinator. Former ECU players David Blackwell (defensive coordinator) and Kirk Doll (special teams) are in, and Montgomery also hired a new defensive line coach in Rod Wright. Incoming four-star quarterback Holton could potentially step right into the starting job as a true freshman next fall.


The 49ers decided to stay the course with coach Brad Lambert despite a 1-11 season that saw the school — in its third year with a football program — regress from 2016’s four-win season. It could be a short leash for Lambert, who is 7-29 with the Niners and will be evaluated by a new athletic director when longtime AD Judy Rose retires this summer.

Lambert did add new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery to his staff. Montgomery replaces Greg Adkins. A former NC State quarterback, the 50-year-old Montgomery was offensive coordinator at Youngstown State, an FCS school, the past eight seasons. He was previously head coach at Miami (Ohio), where he went 17-31 in four seasons.

NC Central

  The Eagles, like their in-state rival A&T, will start the 2018 season with a new head coach after Jerry Mack left to become the offensive coordinator at Rice. He will be replaced on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Granville Eastman, who has 24 years of college coaching experience and has led a unit that has been ranked among the FCS leaders in tackles for loss, fumble recoveries, red zone defense and third down conversion percentage.

  Central won or shared three MEAC championships in Mack’s four seasons there. He was named MEAC Coach of the Year in 2016 and was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson as FCS Coach of the Year after leading his team to nine wins, a conference title and a spot in the Celebration Bowl.

  The 37-year-old Tennessee native will join the staff of newly named Rice coach Mike Bloomgren, with whom he worked when the two were together at Delta State in 2005.

North State Journal 2017 All-Bowl Team

Players from the five North Carolina schools:
QB: John Wolford, Wake Forest; 32-49, 400 yards, 4 TD, Belk Bowl MVP
RB: Marquell Cartwright, NC A&T; 110 rush yards 1 TD, 54 receiving yards, 1 TD, Celebration Bowl Offensive MVP
RB: Jalin Moore, App State; 125 rushing yards, 3 TD, Dollar General Bowl MVP
WR: Scotty Washington, Wake Forest; 138 yards, 1 TD
WR: Stephen Louis, NC State 115 yards
TE: Cam Serigne, Wake Forest; 112 yards, 1 TD
C: Austin Davis, Duke
OL: Gabe Brandner, Duke
OL: Joshua Mattocks, NC A&T
OL: Colby Gossett, App State
OL: Will Richardson, NC State
DL: Kentavius Street, NC State; 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, Sun Bowl Defensive MVP
DL: Kenneth Melton, NC A&T; 1 TFL. 0.5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery
DL: Caleb Fuller, App State; 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles
LB: Justin Strnad, Wake Forest; 10 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 PBU
LB: Airius Moore, NC State: 10 tackles, 1 interception
LB: Joe Giles-Harris, Duke; 8 tackles, 1 TFL
LB: Anthony Flora, App State; 8 tackles, 19-yard interception
S: Dylan Singleton, Duke; 10 tackles, 9 solo, 1 TFL
S: Desmond Franklin, App State; 4 tackles, 35-yard interception
CB: Franklin McCain, NC A&T; 4 tackles, interception, Celebration Bowl Defensive MVP
CB: Nick McCloud, NC State; 7 tackles, 53-yard interception return
P: Xavier Subotsch, App State; 41 yard average
K: Kyle Bambard, NC State; 10 points, 3 touchbacks, Sun Bowl Special Team MVP
Return: J Bates, Wake Forest 59 yard punt return TD