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DeCock: N.C.'s best team debate really between Duke, ECU

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

Poll

Poll: Pick the best college football team in North Carolina this season

While N.C. State and North Carolina clashed over the Wolfpack’s “Our State” motto a few weeks ago, neither team is even remotely in the running when it comes to actually being the best team in the Old North State.

Only two teams are in contention for that title, which with two weeks to go appears headed for Duke, which not only crashed the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 1994 this week but can clinch an unexpected spot in the ACC Championship Game with wins over Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the season.

Making the stronger case

It’s too early to write off East Carolina, though. Should Duke stumble at either closing hurdle, and we are talking about a team that hadn’t been in the top 25 in almost 20 years, the Pirates would certainly have a case to make with road wins over N.C. State and Marshall, the latter for a spot in the Conference USA championship game, potentially in Greenville.

It’s a shame the two schools only play in basketball this season – a Duke win in the Preseason NIT on Tuesday – and not football to settle it on the field. Their last meeting was in 2005 and they don’t have any games scheduled at the moment. But there’s no question Duke has the stronger argument at the moment, and road wins over a pair of in-state ACC rivals to close out the season would certainly seal the deal.

Neutral field significance

According to Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings, Duke would be about a 2 1/2-point favorite on a neutral field, having played a significantly more difficult schedule. East Carolina has played lesser opponents in Conference USA, but with the exception of a triple-overtime stumble at Tulane, the Pirates have mostly beaten the stuffing out of them: 55-14, 58-24, 63-14, 55-31. (Whoops! That last one was the score in Chapel Hill.)

In the most direct comparison, the Blue Devils won at Virginia Tech, while the Pirates lost to the Hokies at home – in a game they should have won, but nevertheless. The common-opponent comparison would work to East Carolina’s favor, however, should the Tar Heels upset Duke for the Victory Bell in two weeks, considering East Carolina’s dominance at Kenan Stadium earlier this season.

Staking claim on the state

News & Observer sports writer Joe Giglio this season created the Mack Brown Cup, awarded to the team that fares the best against its in-state rivals. Based on his point system – plus-2 points for a road win, plus-1 point for a home/neutral win, minus-1 point for a road/neutral loss, minus-2 points for a home loss – three teams could still claim the trophy.

For East Carolina to claim in-state supremacy by that metric, it would need to win at N.C. State and for Duke to lose at least one of its final two games. If Duke wins twice, the Blue Devils top the table regardless of how the Pirates fare. And if Duke were to lose to Wake Forest, the Deacons would move into contention for their first title since 2009 but their seventh in the past 13 years.

(Should both teams fail to make their respective conference championship games, perhaps they should find a neutral site on Dec. 7 and settle this on the field.)

At the moment, both within the borders of North Carolina and within the ACC’s Coastal Division, Duke is in control of its own fate. Should the Blue Devils waver, though, the Pirates are ready to stake their own claim on the state.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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