EMBASSY SUITES/CARY It’s the largest event of its kind in the nation, this Tenth Annual Pigskin Preview of the Bill Dooley Triangle/East Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
And of course it helps that there are five Division I football programs between Orange and Pitt counties.
On Thursday five coaches — new UNC coach Larry Fedora, N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill and N.C. Central assistant Dwayne Foster — occupied the head table for what has become the first big event of each football season. (Foster was sitting in for NCCU coach Henry Frazier, who is on leave as he awaits a court date on domestic assault charges.)
And unfortunately the event’s 78-year-old namesake was ill and unable to attend.
But the coaches entertained a wide array of questions from emcee Don Shea at a packed Thursday luncheon event as they all get ready for their season openers.
As usual, everybody is looking to get better.
The highest hopes might be at N.C. State, where Tom O’Brien’s team is coming off an 8-5 season (4-4 ACC) that included a win in the Belk Bowl.
UNC (7-6, 3-5) won’t be bowl-eligible in Fedora’s first season because of sanctions against the program following the wide-ranging NCAA investigation that precipitated the firing of former coach Butch Davis right before last season began.
Duke (3-9, 1-7) may have its best team under David Cutcliffe in his fifth season, but is still seeking its first bowl bid since 1995.
ECU (5-7, 4-4 Conference USA) is in its third season under McNeill, is likely to finish in the top half of its conference’s East Division and would be a better than even bet to play in a bowl game.
NCCU (3-8, 1-6 MEAC) will look to escape the bottom rungs of the conference in its second season as an official member of Division I-FCS.
The five teams will square off among themselves in, of course, some of the more emotion-packed games in the area this season.
Duke and NCCU will go at it on Sept. 15 at Wallace Wade Stadium in the second Bull City Pigskin Classic, while ECU will visit the Tar Heels the next week.
The other big area bragging-rights games are on Oct. 20 and 27, respectively, with Duke hosting UNC for the Victory Bell followed by the Tar Heels going against the Wolfpack at Kenan Stadium the next week.
Shea asked the coaches who they would like to play them in a biopic and got some interesting answers. Cutcliffe said Matthew McConaughey, O’Brien Ronny Howard, Fedora Al Pacino, McNeill Denzel Washington and Dawson Forest Whittaker.
Everybody said he liked the FBS move to a four-team playoff in the future — most hoping that it will quickly expand to eight — and Cutcliffe said if the Blue Devils ever get into that four-team tournament they’re bound to win it.
And nobody on the dais talked about Penn State.
N.C. State will open the area’s season on Aug. 31, taking on Tennessee in the Georgia Dome as part of the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, with everybody else ready to go the next day.
They said it:
O’Brien: “Certainly we’re in the best shape we’ve been in my (six) years as far as experience and depth are concerned. … I think the question marks certainly we have would be at the linebacker position. We walked off the field last year and knew we had lost two tackles and the middle linebacker position (Audie Cole) coming back for (this) year. Subsequently we lost two other guys (including Terrell Manning, who opted to head to the NFL). The linebacker situation will have to work itself in camp. (LB coach) Jon Tenuta has promised me he’ll have three guys ready to play at Tennessee so I believe him.”
Fedora: “We’ve only had 15 practices, and we’re still trying to figure out who our players are and where they’re going to fit in the offense. At this point we’ve got about half a playbook in, but we’ve got enough offense in to get through a season. Hopefully they’ll overcome the coaching and we’ll have a little success.”
Cutcliffe: “I think it’s really pretty simple. We’ve been pretty good. We’ve played well at time. But I told our squad that pretty good in the ACC right now just gets you close, and close isn’t what we’re hunting. We’ve got to take it to another level. It’s not going to be given to us, but I intend to see this team do that.”
McNeill: “It’s always going to start up front with our O-line and D-line. And we’ve got a great four-way quarterback competition. I like those guys, and I think we’ve got four who can lead our offense. I expect our defense to be, not just improved, but to take a major step up from last year. I like this team’s mental approach and competitive spirit.”
Foster: “We’re looking to improve. We’re excited — and I know that’s ‘coachspeak,’ — but we’re excited about the opportunity. We have a large number of guys returning to be in place to make a good run. Our (2011) goal was to get a winning season and we didn’t achieve that. We didn’t finish games like we should. We’ve addressed our strength and conditioning needs and now our guys are walking around looking like Division I football players.”
N.C. State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta), Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m.
ECU vs. Appalachian State, Sept. 1, noon.
UNC vs. Elon, Sept. 1, 12:30 p.m.
NCCU vs. Fayetteville State, Sept. 1, 6 p.m.
Duke vs. Florida International, Sept. 1, 7 p.m.