Deacs on top: Wake Forest football sits atop end-of-season power rankings

Five of the state’s seven teams are bowl eligible

Devin Leary put on an impressive performance in NC State's annual spring football game on Saturday (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

The 2021 season has been perceived as a “down year” for ACC football, but it has been a successful one for two of the state’s four conference teams.

Wake Forest is playing for a championship and NC State still has a shot at winning 10 games, something that has been done only one time in school history. It’s been just as successful a season for two other state teams, with Appalachian State back in its familiar spot atop the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division and East Carolina returning to a bowl for the first time since the 2014 season.

In all, five of North Carolina’s seven FBS programs are headed to postseason play. Here’s a look at how all the teams stack up now that the regular season is done.

1. Wake Forest (10-2, 7-1 ACC): The Deacons ended Clemson’s six-year run as Atlantic Division champions and will play for the ACC title on Saturday against Pittsburgh in Charlotte.

Coach Dave Clawson’s team got the job done on the strength of a balanced, high-powered offense fueled by quarterback San Hartman (255-423, 3,711, 35 TDs, 10 INT), a trio of capable running backs, and big-play receivers A.T. Perry (56 catches, 1,112 yards, 13 TD) and Jaquarii Roberson (62, 1,024, 8), along with a defense that rose to the occasion in big games against NC State and Boston College.

2. NC State (9-3, 6-2 ACC): The Wolfpack fell short of its first division crown and a chance to play for its first league championship since 1979, but by ending its eight-game losing streak to Clemson and coming from nine points down in the final two minutes to stun rival North Carolina last Saturday, coach Dave Doeren’s team still fashioned a memorable and successful season.

Not only has State reached the nine-win mark for the third time in five seasons, but it can also join the 2002 team as the only ones in school history to reach double digits with a win in its upcoming bowl game. Individually, tackle Ikem Ekwonu won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the league while linebacker Drake Thomas has a legitimate shot at Defensive Player of the Year honors.

3. Appalachian State (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt): The Mountaineers are back in their customary spot atop the Sun Belt East standings after finishing second to Coastal Carolina a year ago. It was also a bounce-back year for transfer quarterback Chase Brice, who rebounded from a down season at Duke in 2010 to complete 64% of his passes for 2,901 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Coach Shawn Clark’s team has a chance to avenge one of its two losses when it takes on Louisiana in the Sun Belt Championship game on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome, it will also have an opportunity at extending its all-time undefeated bowl record to 7-0.

4. ECU (7-5, 5-3 American Athletic Conference): Coach Mike Houston’s Pirates are proof that teams must first learn how to win before they can start to win. Their light bulb moment came on Sept. 18 at Marshall when they rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit for a 42-38 win.

ECU lost its next two, on the final play against Central Florida and in overtime against Houston, but won the next four to clinch its first winning record in seven years. As potent as the Pirates are on offense thanks to the passing of Holton Ahlers and the running of 1,000-yard rusher Keaton Mitchell, their biggest improvement has been on defense — where Ja’Quan McMillian’s five interceptions are tied for most in the nation.

5. UNC (6-6, 3-5 ACC): Coach Mack Brown tried to tell us that his Tar Heels weren’t worthy of its top-10 preseason ranking, but even he has to be surprised by how thoroughly they underachieved. It started with an opening week loss at Virginia Tech and never improved — especially on the road, where UNC failed to win a game.

There were some individual superlatives. Quarterback Sam Howell did what he could by throwing for 23 touchdowns and becoming a viable threat in the running game, Josh Downs set a single-season school record with 98 catches and Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler ran for 1,063 yards. But UNC couldn’t block people consistently and ranked 11th in the ACC in scoring defense.

6. Charlotte (5-7, 3-5 C-USA): The 49ers got off to a splashy start by coming from behind to beat Duke in their season opener and was within one win of bowl eligibility with three games remaining. But coach Will Healy’s team stumbled down the stretch by losing to Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Old Dominion, averaging 49 points allowed in each, to miss out on the postseason for the second straight year.

7. Duke (3-9, 0-8 ACC): An early three-game nonconference winning streak in late September was fool’s gold for the Blue Devils, who lost their final eight games to finish with their third straight losing record.

Duke didn’t just go winless in the ACC, its conference losses came by a lopsided margin of 31.8 points per game. It was a lack of competitiveness that ultimately cost coach David Cutcliffe his job after 14 seasons with the program.