Editor’s note: This story was published in Wednesday’s print edition prior to Appalachian State’s loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday night, and the rankings do not consider that result.
The 2021 college football season is approaching its midway point, and the pecking order among North Carolina’s FBS teams has changed from those of the preseason.
There’s still a favorite for a spot in the ACC Championship game at the top, but it’s not the team that received all the early hype. And the surprise contender is actually a pair of contenders. While the picture has been turned upside down among the Big Four ACC programs, each of the state’s non-Power 5 programs has put themselves in position for successful seasons.
Here’s a look at how the teams stack up as they turn the corner and hit the meat of their respective schedules.
1. Wake Forest (6-0, 4-0 ACC): The Deacons are ranked 16th in the nation and are off to their best start since 1944. With six-time defending ACC champion Clemson having already lost and struggling offensively, coach Dave Clawson’s team controls its own destiny in the race for the Atlantic Division title.
Wake came into the season with the motto of “From Good to Great” after going to bowl games in each of the past five seasons. But while expectations were high thanks to the return of 18 starters and nine “super seniors,” the Deacons have been better than advertised because of an improved defense that has forced 14 turnovers and ranks sixth nationally with a plus-8 turnover margin.
2. NC State (4-1, 1-0 ACC): Like Wake, the 22nd-ranked Wolfpack are set up to make a run at a championship in the unexpectedly wide-open Atlantic Division. Coach Dave Doeren’s team put itself in that advantageous position by finally getting over the hump against Clemson.
State has forged its success thus far by being diverse on offense — rushing for an average of 172 yards while getting 262 yards through the air from a healthy Devin Leary — and playing what Doeren likes to call “complementary football” with a veteran defense that ranks second in the ACC at just 15.8 points per game allowed.
The key to the Wolfpack’s season will come during an upcoming stretch of four road tests in the next five games, starting with Saturday’s game at Boston College and culminating in a showdown at Wake Forest on Nov. 13.
3. Appalachian State (4-2, 1-1 Sun Belt): The Mountaineers were a late field goal at Miami away from being undefeated before getting blown out on the road in rare Tuesday night matchup against fellow Sun Belt contender Louisiana and next week’s showdown with No. 15 Coastal Carolina.
Despite having its string of four straight conference championships snapped last season, App State has continued its run of success under Shawn Clark, its third coach in the last four years, on the strength of a taut defense and the running back tandem of Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples. The biggest question coming into the season was at quarterback, but former Clemson and Duke transfer Chase Brice has come in and provided a winning answer to this point.
4. UNC (3-3, 2-3 ACC): The Tar Heels have been by far the state’s biggest disappointment this season after starting the year at No. 9 in the preseason polls. It’s a fall from ACC frontrunner to Coastal Division also-ran coach Mack Brown blamed on the excessive preseason hype given to his team.
“The national media expectation, the expectations for us to be a top-10 team were wrong,” he said after Saturday’s ugly loss to Florida State. “I guess we should all be critical of the media for picking us too high because we’re not that good. So you guys all screwed it up.”
While Brown is right that there were unrealistic expectations considering the number of key skill players that needed to be replaced, it’s not the media’s fault that UNC continues to make the same mistakes that have plagued it through the first six games — particularly an inability to protect star quarterback Sam Howell and even bigger problems tackling.
While the Tar Heels still have enough talent to turn things around, finish strong and cause problems for in-state rivals Wake and State, the damage to what was once a promising season has already been done.
5. Charlotte (4-2, 2-0 C-USA): The 49ers matched their school’s best six-game start with an impressive road win at Florida International on Saturday, continuing their bounce back from last year’s frustrating COVID-disrupted season.
Coach Will Healy’s team has built its success around an explosive offense that has scored 42 or more points in each of its first two conference games. Quarterback Chris Reynolds has thrown four touchdown passes in each of those wins — against Middle Tennessee and Saturday at FIU — while increasing his school-record career total to 50.
6. ECU (3-3, 1-1 AAC): It’s still a longshot for the Pirates to break their string of six straight losing seasons. But thanks to a significantly improved defense and a running game fueled by the duo of Keaton Mitchell — who rushed for 222 yards against Tulane two weeks ago — and last year’s AAC Offensive Rookie of the Year Rahjai Harris, they’re finally showing signs of progress in their third season under coach Mike Houston.
Two of ECU’s three losses this season, against South Carolina and Central Florida, have come in the final minute by a field goal or less.
7. Duke (3-3, 0-2 ACC): Coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils feature one of the top running backs in the ACC in Mataeo Durrant. But they still struggle with self-inflicted mistakes, mainly turnovers and penalties.
While Duke’s record looks respectable enough now, even after Saturday’s close loss against Georgia Tech, the bad news is that the most difficult part of its schedule is yet to come.