Each week during college football season, columnist Luke DeCock and our college reporters will answer the most important questions of the weekend. Our roundtable discussion begins with whether East Carolina, if given the chance, could win the ACC's Coastal Division.
1. North Carolina plays at East Carolina today and the Pirates, who beat Virginia Tech last weekend in Blacksburg, have a chance to improve to 2-0 against ACC Coastal Division teams. The question: if you put ECU in the Coastal, would the Pirates have a realistic shot of winning it this season?
Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): Without a doubt. The Pirates already have a victory at Virginia Tech, which has the best homefield advantage of any team in the Coastal. If ECU beats UNC on Saturday, it'd be the Pirates’ second consecutive victory against a Coastal Division opponent, and its fourth consecutive victory against an ACC team. That's more than a lot of ACC teams can say. And remember that question about Shane Carden a couple weeks back? He's clearly the best college quarterback in the state.
Luke DeCock: Yes, but who doesn’t? Virginia Tech is the only team that has even hinted at separating itself from the pack with that win at Ohio State, and the Pirates knocked the Hokies back down to size. East Carolina doesn’t just have a gimmick offense; the Pirates showed against North Carolina last year and Virginia Tech this year they are as physical and athletic as any of the ACC rank-and-file.
Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): Depends. Are you going to give ECU Miami or Duke's schedule? But for real, ECU would fit nicely in the Coastal, or possibly even ahead of Clemson in the Atlantic this year. The Pirates are so much more than just quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy. Both are outstanding, no doubt, but I don't think the Pirates and coach Ruffin McNeill get enough credit for A) how much talent they have in the program or B) how well they've developed that talent.
Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Absolutely. The Coastal is such a toss up, between all seven teams (hi, Virginia, thanks for coming to play) that have strong suits and near-fatal flaws. The Pirates would be a worthy 8th entry into the fray, capable of playing well and scoring big wins, while also capable of having an off day and losing. As Miami has proven year after year, it takes more than just raw talent to win this division.
2. We've got our first significant game involving a Triangle team, with UNC playing ECU. But next weekend is big – Duke plays Miami, N.C. State hosts Florida State and UNC is at Clemson. The teams can't look ahead, but we can: How prepared are UNC, Duke and UNC to start the stretches that will define their seasons?
Carter: In the Tar Heels' case, I guess we'll find out in Greenville. They didn't look good in the first two games, a pair of unimpressive victories against Liberty and San Diego State. But win at ECU, and UNC has some momentum heading into a season-defining three-game stretch. Their issues are up front. The offensive line hasn't come together, and UNC will be without Landon Turner, its best offensive lineman, in the ECU game. Defensively, more of the same. The line just hasn't played all that well. UNC won't accomplish what it wanted this season unless the lines improve – and quickly.
DeCock: It’s a measure of how far things have come at Duke that a good chunk of the post mortem after a 38-point win over a Big 12 opponent was devoted to quarterback Anthony Boone’s inconsistency. Other than that, Duke appears the most ready of the Triangle teams. N.C. State is probably closer to its ceiling right now, but how good is the Wolfpack really going to be? And North Carolina will be put to a severe test at East Carolina that will give the best window yet into what the Tar Heels are capable of doing this season.
Giglio: N.C. State is more prepared after last week's road rout at South Florida. That was the first time the Wolfpack looked like a real team under Dave Doeren and the confidence from that game, on the road, should do wonders. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett looks like the real deal, which gives Doeren a puncher's chance (aside: it also might help lead to Florida coach Will Muschamp getting the gate, which could trigger some other dominoes in the Triangle.)
The issue for N.C. State is can the Wolfpack take a punch? It made nice comebacks in the first two games (wins over Georgia Southern, Old Dominion) but neither had commiserate talent. The Pack is going to open ACC play with No. 1 Florida State and then has to go to Clemson. Odds are against N.C. State winning either game, but can it keep it together, keep its confidence up from what should be a 4-0 start for when it plays two more tough games with Boston College (at home) and Louisville (on the road)?
Keeley: Duke is as prepared as they can be. The Devils in Blue have played an atrocious slate of teams — an FCS team, and FBS team that lost to a two-year-old FCS team and Kansas, which is the biggest dumpster fire of a Power Five team since ... well, probably since the mid-2000s at Duke. But these schedules are done years in advance, so you never know exactly what you're getting, and all you can do is play who shows up. A few weeks ago, I described Duke's nonconference schedule like it's a marathon training program — you build up in steps, not doing every workout at sprint pace for 26.2 miles, but, hopefully when it's go time, your base preparation has you ready.
3. The Big Ten has been terrible but still has four top 25 teams. The ACC has had some nice moments, meanwhile, and probably has exceeded expectations – Virginia Tech beat Ohio State, Boston College beat USC – but only Florida State and Clemson are ranked. How does the ACC go about generating more respect nationally?
Carter: It's going to take time. What you're seeing now is the result of years and years – and years – of ACC underachievement. It's going to take more than Florida State winning the national championship, and more than Virginia Tech beating Ohio State and Boston College beating USC, for the ACC to repair its reputation. The polls don't matter, though. What matters is the College Football Playoff, and if Florida State does what it should then the ACC should be represented in the inaugural four-team playoff. That, combined with another good postseason performance, would go a long way to suggest the ACC's problems are a thing of the past.
DeCock: The ACC is paying the price, in terms of perception, for having too many programs that have been off the national radar for too long (take a step forward, Georgia Tech, just for example). It’s been Florida State and Clemson and Virginia Tech and everyone else recently, but if Miami can get back to its traditional level and programs like Duke can continue to compete on a higher level the league’s reputation will naturally follow.
Giglio: I wouldn't worry about rankings. The ACC will get credit for Boston College's win and Virginia Tech's. The College Football Playoff selection committee is going to use those as conference comparisons, say, if FSU stumbles and the choice comes down to a one-loss FSU or a one-loss Pac-12 or Big Ten team. The real concern for the ACC — and Big Ten and Pac-12 — is what if Georgia, or an SEC West team finishes with just one loss (and doesn't play in the SEC title game)? Then the CFP becomes the SEC Invitational.
(Note: I'm intentionally leaving out the Big 12 there because Oklahoma is the best team in the country and will not lose during the regular season.)
Keeley: How about just flat-out being better? I think it's fair to say that the ACC has Florida State and Clemson — and then a bunch of mediocrity. Duke and UNC are the next two closest teams to being ranked — has anything they've done proven they deserve a spot in the top 25? I think the ACC did itself a disservice when they opted to not add a ninth conference game. That just allows the vast majority of programs to schedule another powder puff opponent, which does nothing for the perception of the league (and losing those games make it even worse).