It's an old cliché that often gets attached to college football programs around this time of year. Unless a team is on probation or hasn't won a game since the Clinton administration, everyone has "high hopes" for a successful campaign.
But around the Triangle this season, it's an attitude that can be taken very seriously. All four of the area's Division I programs look to be headed on the way up.
UNC and N.C. State were both good enough last season to earn bowl bids, although both came up short in their postseason games.
For the Tar Heels, last season's 8-5 mark was the first winning season since 2001, and it was UNC's first bowl bid since 2004. UNC is ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press preseason poll.
The Wolfpack went 6-7 in 2008, earning its first bowl spot since 2005.
Duke finished 4-8, the four wins equaling the total of the previous four seasons combined and matching the Blue Devils' highest win total since 1994.
N.C. Central went 4-7, but the Eagles' first losing season in five years came during the toughest schedule in school history.
The "experts" are giving the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack plenty of respect. The Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association picked NCSU for third in the ACC's Atlantic Division while saying UNC would finish third in the Coastal. Duke was chosen to finish in the cellar of the Coastal, although that seemed to be more of a default pick than a statement that the Blue Devils are going to struggle mightily.
NCCU, which is in its third season in Division I's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), is generally thought to be the strongest of the four Division I FCS independents.
All four programs could still be described as works in progress, since David Cutcliffe is in his second year at the Duke helm and the three other head coaches—N.C. State's Tom O'Brien, UNC's Butch Davis and NCCU's Mose Rison—are all in their third seasons in their current jobs.
And there's a little extra hype around the area, since there will be a record four football games matching the Triangle teams this season. Not only are there those ancient traditional rivalries between UNC and Duke and UNC and State, but Duke will host NCCU for the first time ever this season in the "Bull City Gridiron Classic."
It's nearly certain that all four of those games will be sellouts, and quite likely that fewer than half of the teams will have tickets available at the gate on game day for home games.
There is good news for every team at the quarterback position, with established players starting for all three ACC teams. T.J. Yates is back to call the signals at UNC, Russell Wilson at NCSU and Thaddeus Lewis at Duke. And at NCCU, Michael Johnson won the battle for the starting spot with Keon Williams, who should give the Eagles a very solid backup for the season opener.
The action begins on Thursday night at 7, when N.C. State hosts South Carolina (7-6 last season) at Carter-Finley Stadium in a game to be shown nationally on ESPN. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks walloped the Wolfpack 34-0 in last season's opener in Columbia.
The other teams all open on Saturday.
UNC will host The Citadel (4-8) of the Southern Conference at 6 p.m. at Kenan Stadium. Duke will take on Richmond (13-3), the defending NCAA Division I (Football Championship Subdivision) national champion, at 7 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
NCCU travels to MEAC power and former CIAA rival Hampton (6-5) in a 6 p.m. contest at Armstrong Stadium. The Eagles' first two games are on the road before they play their home opener Sept. 19 against Morehead State.
Here's a look at this season's prospects for the Triangle's four Division I football teams:
There's plenty of reason for optimism in Chapel Hill after the Tar Heels' 2008 season, which included victories over Notre Dame and nationally ranked Connecticut, Boston College and Georgia Tech en route to the bowl bid.
Last year turned around a lot of attitudes at UNC, where victory-starved fans had seen the previous two coaches fired after being unable to get the program into the upper echelon of the ACC.
The Tar Heels will come into the season ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press preseason poll.
"Everybody wants to win. There's not a kid in that locker room that doesn't want to go 12-0," Davis said. "Everybody's got to be willing to pay the price to earn victories. Victories aren't given away. They're earned. So we're challenging them, we're pushing them physically, mentally.
"There's frustration. I'm sure they're tired. I'm sure they're sick and tired of listening to me and all the coaches push them 'Hard, tempo, fast, run, hustle' and stuff. But those are the habits that are going to help us win games."
Davis' club placed three defensive players—junior tackle Marvin Austin, junior linebacker Quan Sturdivant and junior cornerback Kendric Burney—on the preseason All-ACC team.
That trio is part of a group of nine returning defensive starters that also includes senior end E.J. Wilson, senior tackle Cam Thomas, senior cornerback Jordan Hemby, junior linebacker Bruce Carter, junior free safety Deunta Williams and sophomore end Robert Quinn.
Yates, a junior, is one of a half dozen returning offensive starters, including senior fullback Bobby Rome, senior tackle Kyle Jolly, junior tailback Shaun Draughn, junior guard Alan Pelc and junior center Lowell Dyer.
"The juniors and seniors on this team are going to help us win those close games," Yates said. "The experience and the leadership that we have on this team will help us get over the edge."
UNC will have tough early nonconference contests at Connecticut and at home against East Carolina, while Davis said the late-October Thursday night game at Virginia Tech should be a huge challenge.
O'Brien said it doesn't take much to raise the expectations of the Wolfpack Nation, and with a strong finish that earned the team its bowl bid, his team certainly accomplished that going into this season.
Last season's Wolfpack recovered from an awful 2-6 start to win its last four games of the year and become bowl-eligible. The victories included wins over all four of the state's other Division I (Bowl Subdivision) teams—UNC, Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina—to allow the O'Brien's team to claim a mythical "state championship" that seemed to stick in the craw of some others around the state (particularly in Boone, home of FCS powerhouse Appalachian State).
Wilson was named ACC rookie of the year, and this time he was one of two preseason All-ACC selections, along with senior defensive end Willie Young.
"We can be better (than last season's team)," O'Brien said. "If you're fundamentally sound, believe in what you're doing and have faith in the person next to you, you're going to have a chance to win every time."
State will return seven starters on each side of the ball, as well as junior place kicker Josh Czajkowski.
Joining Young on the defensive unit are senior end Shea McKeen, senior tackle Alan-Michael Cash, senior linebacker Ray Michel, junior linebacker Nate Irving, junior cornerback DeAndre Morgan and sophomore safety Justin Byers.
The other offensive returning starters are senior center Ted Larsen, senior tackle Jerail McCuller, junior wideouts Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, junior tackle Jake Vermiglio and sophomore tight end George Bryan.
"I'm extremely excited about the expectations for this team," Wilson said. "You have to focus on what your (own) team has inside—we have to check ourselves in the mirror every day."
The Wolfpack's schedule looks favorable, with a record eight home games, including the four nonconference opponents on back-to-back weeks in September. Pittsburgh should provide the other serious nonconference challenge besides South Carolina. None of the three games against ranked opponents—Florida State, Virginia Tech and UNC—is before Halloween.
- Photo by Peyton Williams/ N.C. State Media Relations
- Expectations are high for N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, seen last year versus East Carolina.
One thing Cutcliffe wanted when he said goodbye to his long career in the Southeastern Conference was to change the culture around the Duke program.
While the Blue Devils didn't quite have a winning season in his first campaign—coming up one play short of victory over Northwestern and falling in overtime at Wake Forest, for example—he has done just that.
A convincing season-opening win over FCS superpower James Madison set the tone, and both the team and fans came to games at Wallace Wade thinking they had a good chance for victory. Nothing about that should change this season.
Duke returns five starters on each side of the ball, along with both primary kickers in junior punter Kevin Jones and junior placement man Nick Maggio.
"To have a winning season is a lot different than winning four games," Cutcliffe said. "Looking at our schedule, they all can be challenging, but there's nobody on there we're going to forfeit to. We feel like we can play with anybody if we play well."
Senior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase is Duke's best player, its only preseason All-ACC selection and a nominee for many national honors. Four other seniors—end Ayanga Okpokowuruk, linebacker Vincent Rey, cornerback Leon Wright and safety Catron Gainey—are returning starters on that side of the ball.
Senior quarterback Lewis, who joined Oghobaase on All-ACC last season, is joined as a returning starter on the offensive unit by junior tight end Brett Huffman, junior center Bryan Morgan, sophomore wideout Johnny Williams and sophomore tackle Kyle Hill.
Senior Re'quan Boyette, Duke's rushing leader in 2006 and '07 who missed last season with a knee injury, sees this season's team as faster and stronger.
"We're a lot more conditioned," Boyette said. "We did a lot more running than we did last year. That's a testament to the coaching staff and to the strength and conditioning coach (Sonny Falcone)."
Duke's early schedule provides some interesting matchups, with trips to Army and Kansas in cablecast contests.
Rison's club was within a couple of bum plays—an interception return on the final play of the first half against Fayetteville State and a fumble on the 1-yard line in the closing seconds at Presbyterian—of putting together the Eagles' fifth straight winning season last year.
With another season of Division I recruiting under his belt, Rison said he's very happy with what he has seen in preseason drills.
"We're certainly ahead of where we were last year at this time," Rison said. "Last year we were searching for people. We had one starter back on defense and didn't know what kind of team we were going to have."
This time, NCCU has nine returning starters on defense and eight on offense. Rison's biggest concerns are in the kicking game, with the departure of Brandon Gilbert, the best placement guy in school history, who graduated in the spring.
The Eagles have no all-conference team to make, but 10 players are on the FCS All-Independent preseason team listed in Phil Steele's College Preview.
Junior defensive lineman Teryl White and senior wideout Will Scott were named, respectively, preseason defensive and offensive FCS Independent preseason players of the year by at least one national publication.
Others on Steele's defensive unit are junior lineman Sam Battle, junior linebacker Donald Laster, junior free safety Jeffery Henderson and sophomore defensive back David Ingram.NCCU's other offensive selections were junior tight end Earthan Ward, senior lineman Gabriel Manns, sophomore lineman James Frye and junior return specialist Deshawn Spears.
"Guys are really flying around in practice," Manns said. "From the first day, this group has been a lot more confident. We have a lot of leaders. I think this team can be as good as the one that won the Black National Championship (in 2007)."
Besides the Duke game, the Eagles will play several other marquee games against in-state rivals, traveling to North Carolina A&T, Appalachian State and Winston-Salem State on Nov. 14. The Eagles' homecoming game is against Central State of Ohio.