Look Ahead: 2020 Bold Predictions

Greensboro’s John Isner will have the best year of his career, advancing deep in the men’s draw at Wimbledon and winning his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. (Andy Wong / AP Photo)

The NSJ sports staff is again taking a stab at what will happen in 2020 — and some of the predictions aren’t for the weak-hearted. Sports editor Cory Lavalette and staff writers Brett Friedlander and Shawn Krest take a crack at what the next year will bring.

Cory Lavalette

Hurricanes re-sign Hamilton

The Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton enters the summer coming off his best season — he leads the NHL in goals by a defenseman and finishes second to Washington’s John Carlson in the Norris Trophy race. With a year left on the contract that pays him $6 million (with a $5.75 million cap hit), Hamilton recognizes that he’s meant to be in Raleigh. The Hurricanes believe the same thing, and the two sides hammer out a new contract that will pay him $8.5 million over the next six seasons. The deal makes sense for both sides — Carolina gets Hamilton on a hometown discount, while the defenseman gets a long-term contract that allows him to sign another deal before he turns 35 (NHL contracts count against the salary cap no matter once they’re signed after a player turns 35.

Elliott chases down his first Cup

Already racing’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott adds some real hardware to his trophy case by winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. The 24-year-old matches his career win total in the regular season by taking the checkered flags six times — including the season-opening Daytona 500 — and then dominates the playoffs with four more wins to return the championship to Chevrolet and slow Toyota’s dominance of the sport in the previous four seasons. Elliott becomes the fourth Rick Hendrick driver to win a title, joining Jimmie Johnson (7), Jeff Gordon (4) and Terry Labonte, and starts his reign as the Cup Series’ best driver.

Isner wins the U.S. Open

Greensboro’s John Isner loses in the Wimbledon semifinals in another five-set marathon, this time to Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, but get his redemption — and first Grand Slam title — with a win in Flushing Meadows. Isner, with the home country crowd rallying behind him, defeats 2019 U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev in four sets to become, at 6-foot-10, the tallest Grand Slam winner ever. At 35, he’s also the second-oldest U.S. Open winner in the Open Era, topped only by Ken Rosewall, who was about six months older when he won in 1970.

Brett Friedlander

Clemson still won’t beat UNC in Chapel Hill

The Tar Heels’ recent struggles, combined with the injury to star point guard Cole Anthony that will likely keep him out beyond the Tigers’ visit to the Smith Center on Jan. 11, has coach Brad Brownell, his players and their fans dreaming the impossible dream. If Clemson is ever going to win a basketball game against UNC in Chapel Hill, it might never get a better chance than this. The Tigers are 0 for 59 all-time on the Tar Heels’ home floor. But regardless of the circumstances, they’re just not that good and with all that history going against them, they’ll find a way to lose this time, too.

ECU will qualify for a bowl

East Carolina will take a big step forward in coach Mike Houston’s second season, led by homegrown quarterback Holton Ahlers. (Stephen Dunn / AP Photo)

The Pirates may only have won four games this season under first-year coach Mike Houston, their fifth straight losing season, but they were significantly closer to respectability than at any time since Ruffin McNeill was fired in 2015. An ill-timed turnover here against Cincinnati or there against SMU and they would have been bowl eligible already. ECU already has a dynamic quarterback in Holton Ahlers and an offense capable of putting up big numbers. Given another season to develop a defense and some reinforcements from recruiting, and the Pirates will be poised for a breakthrough in 2020.

Gwiazdowski will qualify for the Olympics and win a medal

A two-time NCAA champion at NC State, Nick Gwiazdowski is one of the nation’s premier freestyle wrestlers at 125 kilograms (275 pounds). Since his graduation, the former Wolfpack star has twice made the U.S. National Team that competed in the World Championships and both times, in 2017 and ’18, he has come home with a bronze medal. His next step is to represent his country next summer at the Olympics in Tokyo. And when he does, he’ll bring home the hardware from there, too.

Shawn Krest

Panthers rebuild

The Carolina Panthers hire Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as head coach following the season. After trying unsuccessfully to trade Cam Newton during the offseason, the Panthers release him, and Newton signs with the Chicago Bears, surprising no one. The real surprise and outrage come when owner David Tepper green lights a trade that sends away linebacker Luke Kuechly to New England for a package of 2020 and 2021 draft picks and begins the Panthers’ rebuilding project in earnest.

New leadership for Deacs

Wake Forest will fire Danny Manning after the 2019-20 season and hire Pat Kelsey away from Winthrop. (Phil Sears / AP Photo)

Following another losing season, Wake Forest cuts ties with head basketball coach Danny Manning. While there is strong support to give Demon Deacons legend and Manning assistant Randolph Childress the coaching job, Wake taps current Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey for the job. Kelsey began his coaching career as Wake’s director of operations and an assistant coach under Skip Prosser and Dino Gaudio. While the choice isn’t a popular one in Winston-Salem, Kelsey quickly has the Deacs on the path to a return to the NCAA Tournament in year one.

Bounce back for Duke

After a sluggish year on offense, Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe shuffles his staff without firing anyone. Embattled offensive coordinator Zac Roper is shifted to quarterbacks and special teams. Current special teams coach Kirk Benedict moves to a defensive assistant job. Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor takes over as offensive coordinator, sharing play-calling duties with Cutcliffe himself. With new voices in new roles and a talented group of returning skill position players and offensive linemen, the winner of the preseason quarterback battle between Gunnar Holmberg, freshman Luca Diamont and a graduate transfer (which will be Diamont) goes on to lead the offense to levels not seen since the mid-2010s.