CHARLOTTE — North Carolina football coach Mack Brown referred to last week’s ACC Kickoff media event as a time for hype and hope.
It’s an accurate description.
While the assembled media provides hype for the coming season, Brown and his fellow coaches hope the expectations that get set for their teams aren’t too high. Or that they can at least live up to them.
The Tar Heels were on the wrong end of that equation a year ago, when they were — in Brown’s words — “criminally overrated” as a top-10 team nationally and the odds-on favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division.
They stumbled in their season opener at Virginia Tech and never fully recovered on the way to a disappointing 6-7 finish that culminated in a Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to South Carolina.
Projections for the coming season have softened considerably now that quarterback Sam Howell and leading rusher Ty Chandler have left for the NFL and virtually the entire offensive line must be replaced.
Instead, the burden of runaway optimism has shifted to rival NC State, which has been picked by many to not only beat out perennial power Clemson in the Atlantic Division but to bring home an ACC title for the first time since 1979.
There’s good reason for the enthusiasm.
Ten of 11 starters — highlighted by the star-studded linebacking corps of Drake Thomas, Isaiah Moore and a healthy Payton Wilson — return on a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the league a year ago. On offense, trigger man Devin Leary is being mentioned as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
The Wolfpack also have plenty of motivation after having its Holiday Bowl game against UCLA and a bid for only the second 10-win season in school history canceled by its opponent because of a COVID outbreak less than four hours before kickoff.
“Nobody likes feeling like you got the raw deal,” coach Dave Doeren said at the ACC’s annual preseason media gathering in Charlotte. “It’s going to come full circle and we’re going to be smiling at the end of it. I believe that whole-heartedly.”
For that to be the case, Doeren and his staff will have to defy history. State has not traditionally fared well when its expectations are the highest. That’s especially true when, as is the case this year, its most important game — against Clemson — is on the road.
So what is it going to take for the Wolfpack to finally get over the hump?
According to Doeren, the answer is simple.
“It’s another play,” he said. “We lost two one-possession games last year (against Wake Forest and Miami) that kept us out of (the ACC Championship) Game. It’s one more play that you have to make. … For us it’s just doing that repetitively. You have to do it in every game you play in the conference.”
Rival UNC learned that the hard way a year ago.
While the Tar Heels had some memorable highs — including a nonconference win against Atlantic champion Wake Forest, a 59-point outburst against Virginia and a win against Miami — they also had their share of season-killing lows, most of which came on the road.
The worst came in the regular season finale when UNC surrendered two touchdowns in the final 1:35 to lose at State.
Correcting those up-and-down tendencies is job one on Brown’s list of priorities as he heads into the season with a staff bolstered by the return of respected defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
“We played inconsistently and that’s on me. That’s on our assistant coaches,” Brown said. “We’ve gone back to work, and the guys have worked really hard.
“I’ve enjoyed this spring. Spring practice was a lot more competitive. We understand that there’s a lot of question marks for this team. We’re not into the hype this year, we’re just trying to get better and play to a standard.”
Like Brown, Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson isn’t into the hype either. That’s because, when it comes to the perennially overlooked Deacons, living up to high expectations is an issue for others to worry about.
No matter how good they have the potential to be.
Playing the role of underdog has become such an annual event at Wake that star quarterback Sam Hartman said he and his teammates expect and embrace it.
With the return of Hartman, All-ACC receiver A.T. Perry and several other key pieces to the 2021 division championship team, all indications are that the Deacons will once again defy the “experts” and be back among the top teams in both their division and the league.
“Every year we come to these media days and people have low expectations of us,” Clawson said. “We never let that dictate how we go about our weekly process or our preparation.
“We’ve got to remain humble and yet stay hungry and never ever be satisfied with where we’re at. I think with the leadership that we have, I’m very comfortable and confident that will happen.”