Where else do college football fans have their choice of three or four big-time games within a 20-mile drive on one day? That’s the case in the Triangle, where UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke are longtime rivals in the ACC, and N.C. Central is a strong member of the MEAC.

Three of the four open at home on Aug. 30. The NCSU Wolfpack hosts Georgia Southern at 12:30 p.m. (WRAL) while the Duke Blue Devils entertain Elon and the UNC Tar Heels face Liberty at 6 p.m. The NCCU Eagles open with an away game, a historic first meeting with East Carolina University, at 8 (ESPNews).

Duke is coming off a 10-4 dream season, winning the ACC’s Coastal Division championship in coach David Cutcliffe’s sixth year. The Blue Devils have been a consistent air show for about 50 seasons, but Cutcliffe has returned a winning tradition to the classic Wallace Wade Stadium horseshoe. Duke is picked to finish second in the division.

UNC recovered from a five-game slide during coach Larry Fedora’s second season to wallop Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl and finish 7-6. The Tar Heels are picked fourth in a balanced Coastal Division but ranked number 23 in the preseason AP poll. The Tar Heels should be improved with their brand of football billed as “Smart, Fast, Physical.”

N.C. State struggled to a 3-9 record in coach Dave Doeren’s first season, but is picked fourth in the seven-team Atlantic Division. State could well be the ACC’s most improved team as Doeren’s system gets its legs. And the “Wolfpack Nation” crowd is always ready to help, with wolf howls echoing over Carter-Finley Stadium when the team gets something going.

N.C. Central, 5-6 last year, is picked eighth in the 11-team MEAC under new coach Jerry Mack. Central may be facing growing pains, but the program has been competitive since the move up from NCAA Division II. And crowds at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium are treated to high-level college football sandwiching one of the most entertaining halftime shows around.


N.C. State vs. Florida State (Carter-Finley Stadium, Sept. 27)The current No. 1 Seminoles are consensus picks to repeat as ACC and National Champions, and will come to Raleigh as heavy favorites. But the Wolfpack accomplished massive upsets on FSU’s last two trips to Raleigh, winning 17-16 in 2012 and 28-24 in 2010.

Duke vs. Virginia Tech (Wallace Wade Stadium, Nov. 15)This should be a key battle in the race for the championship of the ACC’s Coastal Division. Duke’s 13-10 win over the No. 16 Hokies in Blacksburg last season was the Blue Devils’ first over a Top 25 foe on the road since 1971. Tech will likely bring 10,000 or so fans.

Duke vs. UNC (Wallace Wade Stadium, Nov. 20)The battle for the Victory Bell is always intense, so how about putting it on national TV (ESPN) on a Thursday night? Duke has won two straight in the series, earning a bowl bid with a 33-30 decision in Durham two years ago and the Coastal title with the 27-25 road win last time.

N.C. Central vs. North Carolina A&T (O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium, Nov. 22)It’s been the “Turkey Day Classic” and the “Eagle-Aggie Classic,” but whatever it’s called, these folks just don’t like each other. Whether or not it’s big in the MEAC title chase or the NCAA playoff race, there will be a hard overflow sellout. And the post-game “Battle of the Bands” matters.

UNC vs. N.C. State (Kenan Stadium, Nov. 29) Whether both teams are 11-0 or 0-11, they just don’t get any bigger than this for Tar Heel and Wolfpack faithful. It could have massive implications for UNC’s division championship hopes and NCSU’s bowl chances, but 52-week bragging rights are the biggest prize. Mike Potter

This article appeared in print with the headline “Grading the gridiron”