Three 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, the only 2023 campaigns still alive are those of the surviving playoff teams. In the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ranks, non-bowl teams concluded their seasons last week; those invited to the postseason, of course, still have one more big game left to play.

With this December stretch run in mind, below are the three 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: 9-3, 6-2 ACC
National Ranking: #21 in coaches’ poll
Remaining: Bowl game TBD

If 9-3 NC State can win its bowl game, especially in the aftermath of the Wolfpack’s third consecutive victory over the hated Tar Heels in the super-intense State-Carolina football rivalry, 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 lately, 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 six-game winning streak to conclude the 2023 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. Somehow, though, the 2023 Wolfpack — through a midseason record of 4-3, extreme early struggles offensively, two midseason quarterback changes, a number of significant injuries and plenty of other adversity — might end up with the best record of the lot.

While the Wolfpack defense has lots 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, State posted that low-scoring win at Wake Forest. Then, during a 35-28 triumph at Virginia Tech and a 39-20 home victory over the Tar Heels, he started looking a lot more like the guy the Pack originally thought they were getting from the Cavaliers.

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. Appalachian State (FBS)
League: Sun Belt Conference
Location: Boone, N.C.
Coach: Shawn Clark, fourth season
Record: 8-4, 6-2 SBC
National Ranking: none
Remaining: at Troy (12/2, Sun Belt title game); bowl game TBD

Like NC State, Appalachian State hit significant midseason adversity, rallied to save its season with a thrilling (and still active) five-game winning streak, and enters December with a legitimate chance at a 10-win campaign.

Unlike the Wolfpack, however, the Mountaineers also are playing for a conference championship this week. The Sun Belt title will be on the line as 8-4 App State (a seven-point underdog) visits 10-2 Troy on Saturday (4 pm, ESPN).

Things looked bleak for App State about a month ago, after a 28-21 loss at middling Old Dominion left the Mountaineers with a 3-4 record and plenty of hot-seat questions surrounding their program.

Fourth-year head coach Shawn Clark went 6-6 in 2022 — that was just the Mountaineers’ second non-winning season in the past 30 years — and has not yet delivered a Sun Belt championship, which App had won in each of the four seasons (2016-19) immediately before Clark’s promotion to head coach.

Through it all, Clark managed to keep the Mountaineers believing, and they played by far their best football of the season in November, with dominant victories over Marshall (31-9), Georgia State (42-14) and Georgia Southern (55-27) sandwiched around their stunning Nov. 18 win at 10-0 and #18 James Madison, with ESPN’s College GameDay extravaganza on hand.

App State actually finished behind JMU in the Sun Belt East standings (6-2 versus 7-1), but the Mountaineers get to play in the league title game because the Dukes are ineligible, as part of their ongoing transition from the FCS to the FBS.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Mountaineers’ volatile season is that quarterback Joey Aguilar, a junior college transfer who began this season as the backup to redshirt freshman Ryan Burger (who then was injured in the opener), now ranks third nationally with 33 touchdown passes, behind only LSU’s Jayden Daniels (40) and Oregon’s Bo Nix (37), who are possible Heisman Trophy finalists.

App State, which essentially tied Texas State as the Sun Belt’s top scoring offense (36 points per game) during the regular season, will face the league’s top defense on Saturday. Troy has given up less than 17 points per game this year.

3. Lenoir-Rhyne (Division Two)
: South Atlantic Conference
Location: Hickory, N.C.
Coach: Mike Jacobs, fourth season
Record: 12-1, 8-1 SAC (conference champs)
National Ranking: #11 (D2)
Remaining: #14 Valdosta State (12/2, a D2 quarterfinal playoff game)

Congratulations are immediately in order for Lenoir-Rhyne.

The Bears have the best record (12-1) on this list by far, and they are the only team in this state-wide competition that already has won a playoff game — two, actually! — this season. That latter goal was accomplished over the last two weeks, with a 63-17 home annihilation of 9-2 Shepherd in the first round of the 28-team Division Two playoffs, then a 35-25 road triumph over previously unbeaten (11-0) and #1 regional seed Benedict in the second round.

The Bears’ latest victim, Benedict, had been ranked #4 nationally in the most recent Division Two coaches poll and had defeated its 11 previous opponents this season by an average score of 41-9. The Tigers also had won 24 consecutive non-playoff games, dating to late in the 2021 season; that represented the longest such streak in Division Two football and the sixth-longest regular-season winning streak nationally (all divisions), behind only FBS superpowers Georgia and Michigan and several Division Three programs.

Lenoir-Rhyne, meanwhile, has become the most consistently successful college football program in North Carolina. The Bears 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 Lenoir-Rhyne coach Mike Jacobs, a former Ohio State offensive lineman and the 2023 SAC Coach of the Year, has the Bears running the ball well and playing consistently brilliant defense. The Bears’ average score this season is an eye-popping 40-12, and against Benedict, star running back Dwayne McGee carried the ball 21 times for 216 yards and a touchdown.

A 5-8, 180-pound junior from Kissimmee, Fla., McGee (nicknamed “Dee-Wee”) ranks sixth nationally with 1,429 rushing yards (on 200 carries) this season and is second on Lenoir-Rhyne’s career rushing list. He already has secured the Bears’ all-time single-season rushing record, with 1,669 yards during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2021.

Joining McGee on the 2023 All-SAC first team were four additional out-of-state players: senior right tackle Shane Wells (Georgia), freshman return man DeAree Rogers (South Carolina), junior defensive tackle Andre Jefferson (Illinois) and junior linebacker Jon Ross Maye (Georgia).

For their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday, the Bears will make a roughly 500-mile trip to face 12-1 Valdosta State, which is based in Valdosta, Ga. The Blazers have won four of the last 18 Division Two national championships (2004, 2007, 2012, 2018), most recently under Kerwin Bell, who’s now the head coach at Western Carolina, an on-the-rise FCS program based in Cullowhee, N.C.

Lenoir-Rhyne and Valdosta State have met twice previously, with both of those matchups coming relatively recently in the Division Two playoffs. The Blazers won both games, 23-21 in Hickory in 2014, then 61-21 in Valdosta during their 2018 run to the national championship.

The Bears’ win at Benedict last week was their first playoff victory in a true road game in their history as an NCAA program. This week their ultimate challenge is to make it two in a row.