Triangle universities have never sustained success on the gridiron the way they have in basketball and soccer and, more recently, baseball.
Still, on several Saturdays each season, more than 100,000 people watch local college football in person. Though there have been fits and starts and plenty of off-the-field problems lately, all four area Division I football teams have reasons for optimism.
At UNC, the season of punishment for NCAA violations involving improper benefits and academic irregularities is over, and there's a chance to play in a bowl game in Coach Larry Fedora's second season. UNC would have played in last year's ACC title game had it not been on probation.
At N.C. State, new coach Dave Doeren, a hot commodity after taking Northern Illinois to a BCS bowl game, took the reins after Tom O'Brien was fired at the end of a 7-5 regular season.
At Duke, the Blue Devils are coming off of their first bowl trip since 1994, and David Cutcliffe—the only Triangle Division I football coach who was in his current job in 2011—has turned the program from a laughingstock into a competitor.
At N.C. Central, interim head coach Dwayne Foster took over last week when Henry Frazier III was fired Thursday because of new legal charges stemming from a domestic dispute with his ex-wife. But the Eagles are coming off their first winning season since 2007 and hope to make a run at the MEAC championship.
This year's competition begins in earnest Thursday when the Tar Heels visit No. 6 South Carolina at 6 p.m. Then there are two home games Saturday: The Wolfpack opens the Doeren era at 12:30 p.m. at Carter-Finley Stadium against Louisiana Tech, while Duke and NCCU will square off at 4 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium in the third Bull City Gridiron Classic.
Fedora wants the Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3 ACC) to play as fast as possible.
Veteran QB Bryn Renner needs only to match his numbers of the past two seasons to become UNC's all-time leading passer, and he has top targets returning in wideout Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron. The biggest loss from last year was explosive tailback Giovani Bernard, who left for the NFL after his redshirt sophomore season.
"They understand the scheme now and understand what's expected," Fedora said. "I've thought about what's going to be different about this year compared to last year. We can play for a championship and play for a bowl game. But what happened last year was really good for our football team. They really dug deep and decided why they love playing the game of football."
Defensive end Kareem Martin leads what should be a loaded defense with seven starters back.
Best players: 1. OT James Hurst. 2. DE Kareem Martin. 3. TE Eric Ebron.
Opportunity: at South Carolina, Thursday.
Must win: at N.C. State, Nov. 2.
Likely finish: 9-3, second in Coastal Division.
The Wolfpack (7-6, 4-4 ACC) had a decent season in what proved to be O'Brien's swan song, but they lost six starters on each side of the ball, including solid QB Mike Glennon and three-fourths of the secondary.
"I think it's good to come in with a chip on our shoulder," Doeren said. "Our guys are excited to go out and show what we can do on the field. The biggest challenge in the first year (as a coach) is that you don't know what you have because you haven't been out there with those guys against the competition."
Either redshirt junior Pete Thomas, who started two seasons at Colorado State, or fifth-year man Brandon Mitchell, a former wideout at Arkansas, will start at quarterback.
State should benefit from a favorable schedule that includes eight home games.
Best players: 1. CB Dontae Johnson. 2. DT T.Y. McGill. 3. WR Bryan Underwood.
Opportunity: vs. UNC, Nov. 2.
Must win: at Duke, Nov. 9.
Likely finish: 8-4, third in Atlantic Division.
Although the Blue Devils (6-7, 3-5 ACC) had their best season since 1994 and went to the last minute against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, they'll be trying to break a five-game losing streak. But they should be exciting.
Duke returns nine starters on offense, but the two losses are the record-setting combo of QB Sean Renfree and wideout Conner Vernon. Still, last season's QB understudy Anthony Boone should make a smooth transition to the starting job.
"There's still a lot of culture work left to do," Cutcliffe said. "We've worked hard on changing the culture and the mentality and the entire thought process. I really want our team to understand that our expectations are far more important and should be far tougher than anyone else's."
The defense, led by senior cornerback Ross Cockrell, has shown steady improvement in Cutcliffe's five-year tenure. And with fourth- or fifth-year men in every spot up front, that should continue.
Best players: 1. CB Ross Cockrell. 2. P Will Monday. 3. WR Jamison Crowder.
Opportunity: vs. Georgia Tech, Sept. 14.
Must win: vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 21.
Likely finish: 7-5, fifth in Coastal Division.
Frazier had said the Eagles (6-5, 5-3 MEAC) probably had the deepest team of his career. But there are question marks with Foster—who had been assistant head coach—taking over as a head coach for the first time.
"We have (had) a plan in place ... for the past three years," Foster said. "We have some very hard-working student-athletes that are looking for us to stick with that plan."
Senior QB Jordan Reid, who completed 62.3 percent of his passes last year, returns with a nearly intact offensive line. Three defensive starters return, including team tackles leader Taz Foster at linebacker.
Best players: 1. QB Jordan Reid. 2. OT Charles Goodwin. 3. LB Tazmon Foster.
Opportunity: vs. Towson, Sept. 21.
Must win: vs. South Carolina State, Oct. 10.
Likely finish: 7-5, fourth in MEAC.