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Andrew Carter: NC State may have best team in state, but App has top program — and there’s a difference

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In this file photo, Camerun Peoples of the Appalachian State Mountaineers rushes for a touchdown ahead of defender Edgerrin Cooper of the Texas A&M Aggies during the second half at Kyle Field on September 10, 2022, in College Station, Texas.

In this file photo, Camerun Peoples (6) of the Appalachian State Mountaineers rushes for a touchdown ahead of defender Edgerrin Cooper (45) of the Texas A&M Aggies during the Sept. 10 win in College Station, Texas.

So it seems like there’s some confusion about the difference between a college football team and a program. That’s one takeaway, probably the main one, from the reaction to what appeared in this space last week.

A couple others, quickly:

Wake Forest has more football fans than anyone might’ve thought. Believe I heard from all of them. And also: Fans of any in-state ACC school — well, perhaps not Duke; didn’t hear much from Duke football fans — have a real problem with the thought (reality?) that a Sun Belt Conference school has a superior football program.

But back to the distinction between program and team, and after a somewhat slower Saturday it’s worth revisiting. The argument was not, dear readers, Appalachian State has the best team in the state. It was, App State is home to North Carolina’s best FBS football program.

And no, it doesn’t seem all particularly close by any objective (or subjective) measure. We can talk about wins (the Mountaineers have averaged 10 per year since their first FBS season in 2014, significantly more than any other in-state school) or conference championships (two outright, two others shared — while no other in-state school has won any) but the arguments are always the same:

App couldn’t compete in the ACC. And, ACC schools would dominate the Sun Belt.

And, OK. Let’s assume those are true statements (though they might not be). Even if true, those arguments aren’t relevant to the most effective way — one man’s opinion! — to measure programs. Which, to me, is this: To what degree do they maximize potential? Budgets are different. Talent, too. But every program has a ceiling. Which ones most consistently come closest to reaching it?

Sometimes the best teams indeed come from the best programs. Alabama. Georgia. Ohio State. Clemson is a great program whose teams have slipped ever so slightly from their recent peak. Sometimes not-great programs produce good or even great teams. Mid-2010s Florida State is an example. The Seminoles remained formidable, despite the program’s slow crumble in Jimbo Fisher’s final seasons. Late-stage Urban Meyer at Florida is another example of a strong team with a shaky (or plain bad) program underneath it.

In North Carolina, the question is not whether App could compete in the ACC. It’s why North Carolina’s ACC schools haven’t been able to meet their potential to the same degree the Mountaineers have reached theirs. In recent years, Wake Forest has come the closest, and its 11-win season a year ago was admirable. Outside of it, Wake hasn’t won more than eight games since 2006.

Still, one could argue Wake has consistently come close to reaching its ceiling. That’s fair.

N.C. State and North Carolina, meanwhile, haven’t won a conference championship in more than 40 years. Combined, they’ve won their divisions exactly once in 17 years. The Wolfpack, at least, has arguably done more with less relative to the Tar Heels, who are waiting (especially on defense) to win on the field the way they recruit off of it. The sleeping giant still naps.

Duke is early on in a rebuild. ECU, while improved under Mike Houston, has been in a rebuild of its own. Charlotte? A great, memorable win this weekend, but still a program in development.

Yes, UNC just beat App head-to-head. Yes, N.C. State and Wake would probably be favored against the Mountaineers. Yes, App might struggle in the ACC, just as State/UNC/Wake might dominate the Sun Belt. Not the point. It’s the old pound-for-pound boxing cliche: App isn’t a heavyweight, and thus is at a disadvantage against bigger foes. But it’s the state’s best fighter. And program.

ONE BIG THING

As the astute and very worthy Twitter follow Bryan Ives (@awaytoworthy) shared last week, Duke, N.C. State, North Carolina and Wake Forest all started 2-0 for the first time ever. As in: ever, ever. A week later, the stat holds up. The Big Four is 3-0 (and UNC, for the record, was 3-0 last week) for the first time in history. One could say, perhaps, that this state was due for such a thing.

THE HOTTEST TAKE*

Florida State is back!**

* a take in which we sarcastically poke fun at a real, actual take. Not meant to be taken seriously.

** also, this week, we’re not sure if anyone actually believes Florida State is back.

THREE TO LIKE

1. Props to ESPN for bringing “College GameDay” to Boone. The News & Observer, it must be said, was first to highlight the enviable atmosphere in the High Country this season but, no matter. Lee Corso donning a Yosef head makes for quality content, and Boone proved its football environment is just as strong as anybody’s in North Carolina. And, oh yes — memorable ending, too.

2. The so-called basketball schools are all right. Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas — all 3-0. And speaking of programs, folks, take a look at what Mark Stoops has done at Kentucky. A fine example, indeed, of building something sustainable over time, that comes close to maximizing its potential.

3. Welcome to the win column, Charlotte. It wasn’t the most ideal of starts for the 49ers, who were favored to lose at Georgia State by about 20 points on Saturday. Instead, Charlotte hangs tough all game and prevails with a touchdown with 17 seconds remaining to win by one — and against a team that a week earlier had tested UNC, no less.

THREE TO ... NOT LIKE AS MUCH

1. Grumpy old man take incoming in three ... two ... one: We understand the fascination schools have with stretching the boundaries of uniform design, and the need to appeal to recruits. All good there. But N.C. State and Texas Tech essentially switched color schemes Saturday night. Viewers just tuning in could’ve been forgiven for their confusion. In an era in which branding apparently matters more than ever, why do schools go out of their way to get away from their brands?

2. Speaking of State, it’s fair to say the preseason hype was justified. For the defense. The offense? It’s early yet, yes, and the running game has shown positive signs, at times. The passing game, though, has been bleak. Devin Leary needs help. State’s receivers might’ve been more impressive passing the ball than catching it against the Red Raiders.

3. It’s not the one-point margin of victory that’s concerning about Wake’s victory against Liberty. It’s that the game against such a problematic university was played at all. Note to Wake: If you’re looking for a worthy Group of Five opponent, there’s one not too far up U.S. 421 (in Boone, for the uninitiated) that’d love the opportunity.

CAROLINAS RANKING

1. Clemson (what’s this, an offense!?); 2. N.C. State (Wolfpack should be top 15 headed to Clemson in two weeks); 3. App State (“just win, baby”); 4. Wake Forest; 5. North Carolina (perhaps the Tar Heels solved the entirety of their defensive woes during the off week); 6. ECU; 7. South Carolina; 8. Duke; 9. Coastal Carolina; 10. Charlotte.

FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER

— For my money, pun intended, the best “GameDay” sign I saw Saturday was the one with Yosef standing next to a machine with a Texas A&M logo (“ATM”), and the caption: “The only ATM that lets you withdraw $1.5 million.” Well done.

— Should be some kind of rule that if North Carolina FBS schools are going to play FCS teams, you play ones from this state. ECU playing Campbell is the right idea. Same, and especially, with Duke and North Carolina A&T.

— Speaking of Duke, let us take a moment to appreciate the majesty of the Blue Devils’ upcoming visit to Lawrence to play against Kansas. Was not that long ago that a game between these two would’ve been the cause for all kinds of jokes. Kansas has already won at West Virginia and Houston, and Duke has the early makings of a team that won’t be an easy out in the Coastal.

— We all know about the Madden Curse and the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Starting to get the same vibes out of ACC Preseason Player of the Year voting. At least Sam Howell last year had Josh Downs. Leary, meanwhile, hasn’t been sharp for N.C. State this season. But he also hasn’t had a lot of help.

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