Seven 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 Division Two and Division Three levels, many 2023 campaigns already have been completed. Others will end Saturday, including those of several Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs. Some Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams will have their seasons conclude Nov. 25.

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 seven 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) 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 purposes.

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

1. North Carolina (FBS)
League: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Coach: Mack Brown, fifth season (second tenure)
Record: 8-2, 4-2 ACC
National Ranking: #20
Remaining: at Clemson (11/18), at NC State (11/25), bowl (TBD)

In this state, especially at the FBS level, nine wins is considered a good season, and UNC has three 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 quarterback Drake Maye’s final season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are 8-2 and ranked #20 nationally, but they face another very difficult stretch as they approach the finish line: at Clemson (only 6-4 but improving and always tough at Death Valley), at NC State (7-3 and absolutely dominant on defense lately), then probably a challenging bowl opponent.

Only if the Tar Heels can win at least two of those three 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.

2. NC State (FBS)
League: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Coach: Dave Doeren, 11th season
Record: 7-3, 4-2 ACC
National Ranking: not in Top 25
Remaining: at Virginia Tech (11/18), UNC (11/25), bowl (TBD)

If 7-3 NC State can win its final three games — that means at Virginia Tech (only 5-5 but playing its best football of the season) this week, home against UNC (8-2 but very beatable lately) the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 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 consecutive victories over Clemson (24-17), Miami (20-6) and Wake Forest (26-6), a three-game sweep to conclude this season seems a 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. 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 saddle, the Pack posted another low-scoring win at Wake Forest last week.

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.

3. Duke (FBS)
: Atlantic Coast Conference
Location: Durham, N.C.
Coach: Mike Elko, second season
Record: 6-4, 3-3 ACC
National Ranking: not in Top 25
Remaining: at Virginia (11/18), Pittsburgh (11/25), bowl (TBD)

Although the schedule is accommodating, with only 2-8 Virginia and 2-8 Pittsburgh remaining in the regular season, it may be asking too much for Duke to post the three-game sweep that would be required to make it a serious candidate for the “Best College Football Season In North Carolina” honor.

The 6-4 Blue Devils have been playing without star quarterback Riley Leonard, who injured his ankle in the team’s 21-14 loss to #11 Notre Dame, then re-injured it in a 38-20 defeat at #4 Florida State. Without him, Duke has lost two of its last three games, although its third-string QB, true freshman Grayson Loftis, made a couple clutch throws as the Devils edged Wake Forest (24-21) and played by far his best game last week in their 47-45 loss at #24 UNC.

The main reason Duke can’t be discarded entirely in this competition, even with its mediocre 6-4 record, is that nine-win seasons are incredibly rare in Durham, and a three-game sweep to close this season would get the Blue Devils to that mark for the second year in a row under second-year coach Mike Elko. When Elko, the 2022 ACC coach of the year, led his team to a 9-4 record last year, it marked just the seventh time in Duke history — and just the third time since 1941(!) — that the Devils had won nine or more games in a single season.

4. NC Central (FCS)
: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Location: Durham, N.C.
Coach: Trei Oliver, fourth season
Record: 8-2, 3-1 MEAC
National Ranking: #14 (FCS)
Remaining: Delaware State (11/18), TBD

Despite NC Central’s devastating and surprisingly lopsided (50-20) loss to Howard last week, which may have killed 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, the Celebration Bowl dream, while on life support, isn’t quite dead yet. If Howard (5-5, 3-1 MEAC) beats Morgan State (4-5, 3-1 MEAC) on Saturday, the Bison would represent the MEAC in the Celebration Bowl because their head-to-head win over the Eagles would serve as the tiebreaker, if needed. However, if Morgan State beats Howard, NC Central would clinch the Celebration Bowl bid with an expected home victory over lowly Delaware State (1-9, 0-4 MEAC), thanks to the Eagles’ head-to-head victory over the Bears earlier this season.

Second, if Howard does indeed win and clinch the Celebration Bowl slot, NC Central could 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. With a win over last-place Delaware State on Saturday, the Eagles — who have been ranked in the FCS Top 25 all season — would have a 9-2 record that, according to most FCS bracketologists, likely would be enough to secure one of the 14 at-large bids to the 24-team FCS playoffs.

5. Western Carolina (FCS)
: Southern Conference
Location: Cullowhee, N.C.
Coach: Kerwin Bell, third season
Record: 7-3, 5-2 SoCon
National Ranking: #18 (FCS)
Remaining: at VMI (11/18), FCS playoffs?

With a victory at VMI on Saturday, Western Carolina would finish the regular season 8-3, tied for second in the Southern Conference, ranked in the top 20 of the national polls, and as a very strong candidate for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs. The Catamounts’ only losses this season were to Arkansas (an FBS foe), Furman (the SoCon champion) and Mercer (another top-25 FCS team).

Making history definitely matters in this “Best College Football Season In North Carolina” competition, and third-year coach Kerwin Bell and this year’s high-scoring, fun-to-watch Catamounts (39 points per game, third-best nationally) would be doing exactly that just by earning a postseason bid. Western Carolina has been to the FCS playoffs only one time in its history, way back in 1983 under coach Bob Waters, when the Catamounts made a run all the way to the FCS national championship game. Will these Catamounts make those playoffs for just the second time, 40 years later?

6. Gardner-Webb (FCS)
: Big South-OVC
Location: Boiling Springs, N.C.
Coach: Tre Lamb, fourth season
Record: 6-4, 4-1 Big South-OVC
National Ranking: not in Top 25
Remaining: Charleston Southern (11/18), FCS playoffs?

With its 35-0 demolition of Tennessee Tech last week, Gardner-Webb took one step closer to another football title in the Big South, which is now in a gridiron partnership with the Ohio Valley Conference.

With a home win over Charleston Southern on Saturday at Spangler Stadium in Boiling Springs, the Runnin’ Bulldogs would clinch their fourth Big South championship 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.

7. Lenoir-Rhyne (Division Two)
: South Atlantic Conference
Location: Hickory, N.C.
Coach: Mike Jacobs, fourth season
Record: 10-1, 8-1 SAC (SAC champions)
National Ranking: #11 (D2)
Remaining: Shepherd (11/18, a D2 first-round playoff game)

Congratulations are immediately in order for Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears have the best record (10-1) on this list, and they are the only team here that already has officially won its conference championship. That was accomplished last week, with a 48-7 demolition of Tusculum, which hosted the league title game as the winner of the South Atlantic Conference’s Mountain Division. Lenoir-Rhyne won the Piedmont Division.

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 has Lenoir-Rhyne 10-1 as it hosts 9-2 Shepherd on Saturday at Moretz Stadium in Hickory. With a victory, the Bears would reach the Sweet 16 and a second-round matchup against #1 seed Benedict (11-0), an HBCU program based in Columbia, S.C. That would be a reasonable road trip, as the two campuses are only about 120 miles apart (two-plus hours by car).

P.S. Shout-out to 7-3 Davidson, a non-scholarship FCS program that still has a chance to win the Pioneer League, whose champion also gets an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats will clinch a share of the conference title and their fourth consecutive playoff trip only if they beat 3-7 Dayton and league leader Drake (7-3, 7-0) loses at Butler (7-3, 5-2).

NOTE: All of these college football stories and many others are discussed in our weekly Old North State Tailgate podcast, which includes award-winning broadcaster David Glenn, veteran host and play-by-play voice Chris Edwards, long-time college football coach Jimmy Collins, and veteran broadcaster and NCAA administrator Mike Waddell. The most recent episode is below.