Five Teams Remain Legit Contenders For
2023’s “Best College Football Season In NC”

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

There are 33 NCAA football teams in North Carolina, and some of them are worth celebrating this season.

At the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), Division Two and Division Three levels, most 2023 campaigns already have ended. In the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ranks, non-bowl teams will conclude their seasons this week.

Those invited to the postseason, of course, still have at least one or more very big game(s) left to play.

With this stretch run in mind, below are the five teams that still have a chance to claim the title of “Best College Football Season In North Carolina.” Please note that this is a different label than that of the best team in North Carolina, which would virtually always go to the highest-ranked FBS member.

Final records, national rankings, conference championships, postseason invitations (and performance there) all are considered in this competition, with the burden on lower-division teams to do truly sensational things in order to be elevated above higher-division teams. Head-to-head competition does matter when such games have been played during the current season, but who would beat whom in theoretical head-to-head games (e.g., FBS vs. Division Two) is not relevant for these multi-divisional evaluation purposes.

Without further ado, here are your 2023 “Best College Football Season In North Carolina” finalists:

1. NC State (FBS)
League: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Coach: Dave Doeren, 11th season
Record: 8-3, 5-2 ACC
National Ranking: #24 in coaches’ poll
Remaining: UNC (11/25), bowl (TBD)

If 8-3 NC State can win its final two games — at home against UNC (8-3 and talented but very beatable lately) this Saturday night, then likely against a formidable bowl opponent — 11th-year coach Dave Doeren arguably would deserve credit for his best season of coaching during his lengthy tenure in Raleigh. Especially with the way the Wolfpack defense, led by superstar linebacker Payton Wilson, has been playing recently, yielding an average of less than 10 points per game in recent victories over Clemson (24-17), Miami (20-6) and Wake Forest (26-6), a five-game winning streak to conclude the regular season seems a very reachable goal.

Doeren definitely has had more talented State teams, including his 2017 (9-4) and 2021 (9-3) squads, which finished in the Top 25. While the Wolfpack defense has plenty of talent, the Pack’s offense has only one truly special player (true freshman wide receiver KC Concepcion), and its quarterback situation has been a mess at times. Virginia transfer Brennan Armstrong struggled mightily during the team’s 3-2 start, which included an ugly 13-10 home loss to Louisville. That led Doeren to elevate sophomore MJ Morris into the starting role, but a month later Morris shocked his coaches by requesting a redshirt after going 3-1 in a low-risk, game-manager sort of role. (Under current NCAA rules, if a player participates in more than four games, he burns a year of eligibility.) With Armstrong back in the starter’s saddle, the Pack has posted that low-scoring win at Wake Forest and a 35-28 triumph at Virginia Tech.

After more than 100 years of college football, there is still only one NC State team that has won 10 or more games. That was the 2002 squad, led by coach Chuck Amato and star quarterback Philip Rivers, which finished 11-3 after beating Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. If this State team can get to 10 wins, given its various injuries and especially its crazy QB complications and limitations, it would be a truly amazing feat worth celebrating.

2. North Carolina (FBS)
League: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Coach: Mack Brown, fifth season (second tenure)
Record: 8-3, 4-3 ACC
National Ranking: not in Top 25
Remaining: at #24 NC State (11/25), bowl (TBD)

In this state, especially at the FBS level, nine wins is considered a good season, and UNC has two more chances to reach/surpass that mark. However, when the Tar Heels finished 9-5 last year, the record had a hollow feel to it, because they lost four in a row to end their campaign.

Now, in what is almost certainly superstar quarterback Drake Maye’s final season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are 8-3, but they again are at great risk of stumbling through a very difficult stretch as they approach the finish line: at Clemson (a 31-20 loss last Saturday), at NC State (8-3 and mostly dominant on defense lately) this Saturday night, then probably a challenging bowl opponent.

Only if the Tar Heels can win both of their remaining games, to get to the much more rarified air of a 10-win season, will Maye’s last year be considered a true success story. Carolina has posted 10 or more victories in a season only eight times in program history and only once (11-3 in 2015 under coach Larry Fedora) in the last 25 years.

3. NC Central (FCS)
: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Location: Durham, N.C.
Coach: Trei Oliver, fourth season
Record: 9-2, 4-1 MEAC (tied for league title)
National Ranking: #13 (FCS)
Remaining: at #25 Richmond (11/25; FCS playoffs)

Despite NC Central’s devastating and surprisingly lopsided (50-20) loss to Howard two weeks ago, which ended up killing the Eagles’ dreams of a return to the Celebration Bowl (which matches the MEAC champion against the SWAC champion each year) and perhaps a second consecutive HBCU national championship, there’s still a chance for something special in Durham.

First, although Howard will represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl, NC Central does get to claim a share of the league championship. (Howard and NCCU both finished 4-1 in conference play, with the Bison winning the tiebreaker because of their head-to-head victory over the Eagles.) Among the 32 NCAA football teams in North Carolina, only three (NCCU, Gardner-Webb, Lenoir-Rhyne) won or shared a conference crown this season.

Second, a major silver living behind the Eagles’ disappointing Celebration Bowl miss is that it enabled them to have a different dream come true. During their 13 years playing at the FCS level, after making the leap from Division Two, the Eagles have never participated in the FCS playoffs … until now. An at-large entry because of its glistening 9-2 record (one of those losses was at UCLA) and high national ranking, NCCU will face #25 Richmond (8-3) of the Coastal Athletic Conference on Saturday. During the regular season, the Eagles beat all three of their CAA opponents: North Carolina A&T (30-16), Campbell (49-48) and Elon (34-23).

4. Gardner-Webb (FCS)
: Big South-OVC
Location: Boiling Springs, N.C.
Coach: Tre Lamb, fourth season
Record: 7-4, 5-1 Big South-OVC (conference champs)
National Ranking: not in Top 25
Remaining: at #23 Mercer (11/25; FCS playoffs)

With a 34-10 home win over Charleston Southern on Saturday at Spangler Stadium in Boiling Springs, the Runnin’ Bulldogs clinched their fourth Big South-OVC championship (now a partnership with the Ohio Valley Conference) since they joined the league in 2001, their second in a row under fourth-year coach Tre Lamb, and their league’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The Bulldogs participated in that event for the first time ever just last year, when they won their opener before falling in the Round of 16.

Lamb, 34, is one of the youngest head coaches in the country. Just 11 years ago, he was a three-year starter at quarterback for Tennessee Tech, as a player in the OVC. In 2020, Lamb took over a Gardner-Webb program that hadn’t won the league since 2003 and had never been to the FCS playoffs, and now he’s the reigning Big South Coach of the Year, and he has the Runnin’ Bulldogs in the postseason for the second year in a row. This week’s opponent, 8-3 Mercer, is making its first trip to the FCS playoffs in the history of its program.

Key players for Gardner-Webb include fifth-year senior running back Narii Gaither (more than 3,000 career rushing yards), senior defensive end Ty French (among FCS leaders in tackles for loss) and true freshman quarterback Jaylen King (5-1 as the starting QB). During their current five-game winning streak, with King at the controls, the Runnin’ Bulldogs have averaged 37 points per game.

5. Lenoir-Rhyne (Division Two)
: South Atlantic Conference
Location: Hickory, N.C.
Coach: Mike Jacobs, fourth season
Record: 11-1, 8-1 SAC (conference champs)
National Ranking: #11 (D2)
Remaining: #4 Benedict (11/25, a D2 second-round playoff game)

Congratulations are immediately in order for Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears have the best record (11-1) on this list, and they are the only team here that already has won a postseason game. That was accomplished last week, with a 63-17 home annihilation of 9-2 Shepherd in the opening round of the Division Two playoffs.

The Bears have become the most consistently successful college football program in North Carolina. They are the SAC champions for the ninth time in the last 13 years, and their most recent title clinched their seventh all-time bid to the Division Two playoffs. A decade ago, coach Mike Houston (now at East Carolina) led them to a 13-2 record, the 2013 national championship game and a #2 postseason national ranking.

Fourth-year coach Mike Jacobs, a former Ohio State offensive lineman, has Lenoir-Rhyne running the ball well and playing consistently brilliant defense. The Bears’ average score this season is an eye-popping 40-11. For their Sweet 16 matchup on Saturday, they will make a relatively short (two and a half hours by car) trip to 11-0 Benedict, an HBCU program based in Columbia, S.C. Lenoir-Rhyne has won both games in this rivalry by lopsided margins, although those matchups were played more than a decade ago.