Just about a month ago, Everett Withers was just getting ready for another season as UNC's defensive coordinator when a really big shoe dropped.
After a year-long scandal involving both academic cheating and improper benefits to athletes, and just after a long weekend of preseason media events in Durham and Pinehurst, the university fired head football coach Butch Davis and nudged athletic director Dickie Baddour in the direction of the door. While the move itself wasn't a shocker, the timing was awful.
And presented Withers—the new interim mentor who became the Tar Heels' first black head coach in any sport—with a pretty big challenge. How will he be able to top the between-the-lines performance by Davis last season, when a handcuffed team managed to put together an 8-5 record and a thrilling overtime bowl win over Tennessee?
The UNC mess, which won't be over until the NCAA sorts it all out and decides what sort of discipline is coming, has made the quarterback controversy at N.C. State look like the proverbial tempest in a teapot. Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien may have made a significant career move when he tired of Russell Wilson's quest to become baseball's next Joe Morgan, gave him his release and installed the tall, highly touted Mike Glennon at quarterback.
If State can match its performance from last season, when it went 9-4 and thumped West Virginia in a bowl game, all is well. But if Glennon gets hurt and the Wolfpack falters while Wilson—who seems to embody everything that is right with college football, to boot—is named Big Ten player of the year at Wisconsin, the wolves are going to be howling.
Duke doesn't have any controversy except the fact that the Blue Devils haven't been to a bowl game since 1994. Fourth-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe has brought new energy to the program and transformed the Blue Devils from dead-cockroach mode into a respectable team that is fun to watch and can occasionally sneak up on somebody. But getting those six wins to qualify for a bowl invite has proven to be a tough task.
Duke will have one of the better offenses in the league under the ACC's most experienced quarterback, Sean Renfree. But the biggest question is whether or not the Blue Devils can shut down good offenses and get Renfree and co. the ball.
The three local ACC teams will all open the season on Saturday, strangely against Division I-FCS teams from Virginia. UNC will be a solid favorite against James Madison and N.C. State a prohibitive favorite against Liberty. Duke should be favored against Richmond, but the Spiders have claimed victories on their last two trips to Durham.
- Head coach (career record): Tom O'Brien (100-70, 25-25 at NCSU).
- Last season's record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC.
- Top returning players: 1. TE George Bryan. 2. LB Audie Cole. 3. S Earl Wolff.
- Team's biggest weakness: inexperience at skilled positions.
- 2011 predicted record: (optimistic) 13-1, (realistic) 10-3, (pessimistic) 6-7, (sadistic) 3-9.
- Key game: UNC.
- O'Brien should get a contract extension if NCSU beats: Florida State.
- O'Brien will be on the hot seat if NCSU loses to: Wake Forest.
- Head coach (career record): Everett Withers (0-0).
- Last season's record: 8-5, 4-4 ACC.
- Top returning players: 1. DE Quinton Coples. 2. WR Dwight Jones. 3. DT Tydreke Powell.
- Team's biggest weakness: inexperienced secondary.
- 2011 predicted record: (optimistic) 11-2, (realistic) 8-5, (pessimistic) 5-7, (sadistic) 3-9.
- Key game: at N.C. State.
- Withers should get a contract extension if UNC beats: Virginia Tech.
- Withers will be on the hot seat if UNC loses to: Virginia.
- Head coach (career record): David Cutcliffe (56-53, 12-24 at Duke).
- Last season's record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC.
- Top returning players: 1. PK Will Snyderwine. 2. WR Conner Vernon. 3. S Matt Daniels.
- Team's biggest weakness: run defense.
- 2011 predicted record: (optimistic) 8-5, (realistic) 5-7, (pessimistic) 3-9, (sadistic) 0-12.
- Key game: at Virginia.
- Cutcliffe should get a contract extension if Duke beats: UNC.
- Cutcliffe will be on the hot seat if Duke loses to: Richmond.