The NSJ sports staff decided it would be fun to end the year with a little prognosticating beyond which teams and players we believe will stand out in 2018. Sports editor Cory Lavalette and staff writers Brett Friedlander and Shawn Krest each took a stab at naming three things that could happen in the next year that would alter the North Carolina sports landscape. Here’s our clairvoyant take on what’s to come the next 12 months.
Hurricanes trade Skinner
Carolina finally snaps its playoff drought this spring but is eliminated in the first round. Despite the renewed optimism around the team and new owner Tom Dundon opening his wallet to make the Hurricanes at least a middle-of-the-road cap team, GM Ron Francis decides the seven-year contract extension Jeff Skinner wants — which would take him into his early 30s — is not a gamble worth taking and trades him. Skinner is dealt to San Jose before the start of the 2018-19 season for a package that includes Sharks 2017 first-round pick Josh Norris. Skinner and the guy he beat out for the 2011 Calder Trophy, Logan Couture, re-sign with Sharks.
Byron makes the playoffs
It’s not bold to say Charlotte native William Byron will be the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series’ top rookie next year, though he will have competition from Bubba Wallace in Richard Petty’s famed No. 43. But how about Byron making the playoffs in his first Cup season? Byron, who won four Xfinity Series races in 2017 at age 19 and seven Camping World Truck Series races the year before, will take over Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 from teammate Chase Elliott (he’ll drive the No. 5 instead), and both will make the postseason — ushering in a new era of early 20s superstars to NASCAR’s top series.
Chubb goes first overall
NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb was compared to former Wolfpack star and 2006 first overall pick Mario Williams plenty last year. Come April, they’ll have even more in common. The winless Cleveland Browns will trade the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft to Tampa Bay for a pile of assets, and the Buccaneers will use it to select Chubb. Coach Dirk Koetter will focus on fixing Jameis Winston and the Tampa offense, but he brings in ex-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to be defensive coordinator after current DC Mike Smith lands a head coaching job, and Chubb proves a perfect fit for Lewis’ 4-3 scheme.
ECU goes a familiar route for its new basketball coach
There’s a good chance ECU athletic director Jeff Compher has already targeted the man he’ll hire as the Pirates’ next basketball coach. And he’ll have a similar pedigree to his predecessor. While both UNC Greensboro’s Wes Miller and Jeff Lebo graduated from the UNC school of coaching, there’s a big difference between the two. Unlike Lebo, who resigned on Nov. 29 before Compher had a chance to fire him, Miller is an up-and-coming young gun rather than a recycled veteran. Miller also has taken a stagnant program like ECU’s and turned it into a winner, the Spartans went 11-22 in 2014-15 to 25-10 last season, and this year’s team stands a good chance of winning the Southern Conference and getting to the NCAA tournament.
Tar Heels poised for a bounce-back season
The 2017 season is one coach Larry Fedora and the UNC football team would just as soon forget. The good news for the Tar Heels is, barring another historic epidemic of injuries, they are a virtual lock to bounce right back from their 3-9 disaster and return to a bowl in 2018. UNC will go into next season with not one, but two experienced quarterbacks and a slew of young players on both sides of the ball that saw significant game action. The schedule will also work in the Tar Heels’ favor. Notre Dame is replaced by East Carolina on the nonconference slate, and Syracuse will be the crossover opponent from the Atlantic Division rather than Louisville.
An Olympic effort
Heather Richardson Bergsma, a former in-line skater from High Point who didn’t take up speed skating until she was a teenager, will win medals in several distances at next month’s Winter Olympics. Although her best finish in two previous Olympics was sixth at the 2010 games in Vancouver, her career has taken off since marrying Dutch star Jorrit Bergsma, moving to the Netherlands and training with his national team. She is the current world record holder in the 1,500 meters and the American record holder in the 500. She could be joined by other North Carolinians in PyeongChang, including former NC A&T football player and current bobsled pusher Adrian Adams.
Panthers ownership takes a turn
While plenty of in-state money is offered for the Carolina Panthers, including groups headed by the Belks, Bruton Smith (Charlotte Speedway) and James Goodnight (SAS), the team is eventually sold to a group headed by Vista Equity Partners’ owner Robert F. Smith. Along with minority investors Diddy and Oprah, Smith’s Panthers becomes the first African-American-owned franchise in the NFL. While the Panthers remain in Charlotte for 2018, as the details of the franchise transfer are ironed out, the ownership group begins exploring relocation options, including Toronto, London and a potential return of the NFL to Oakland — where Smith’s company has a presence.
Duke has two big hires to make
Duke’s Kevin White has his work cut out for him as Blue Devils football coach David Cutcliffe and basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski both announce their retirements. Former Purdue interim coach Gerad Parker is hired as Cutcliffe’s replacement, beating out defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, Yale head coach Tony Reno, newly former ECU coach Scottie Montgomery and Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall. The basketball hire has more drama than expected, as three former Blue Devils guards jostle for position as the heir apparent. In the end, longtime assistant Jeff Capel beats out Northwestern coach Chris Collins and Arizona State’s Bobby Hurley to win the job.
Wake makes a run but falls short
Wake Forest makes a surprising run to the ACC Football Championship Game after beating Clemson in an upset at BB&T Field. A late-season loss to Boston College, coupled with a September home loss to Notre Dame means the Deacs have to knock off Miami in the title game to have a shot at the College Football Playoff. Wake loses a heartbreaker to the Hurricanes and heads to the Orange Bowl, where it beats South Florida. The Deacs then offer a hefty raise to Dave Clawson in an effort to keep him from taking the Iowa job vacancy.