Butch Davis was among five coaches at the annual July luncheon of the local chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, an event that generates a lot of quips and laughter with a good time had by all—before reality sets in for most.
But Davis admittedly wasn't having as much fun as the others on the dais.
New East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill had remarked that his first few months as the Pirates' mentor had been a "whirlwind." And when Davis—who would later face a mob of about 30 reporters asking about the recent scandals around his program—got his turn to speak, he began with "You think Ruffin would like to trade whirlwinds?"
The remark drew plenty of laughter, but those responsible for the UNC program haven't been doing much laughing lately. Things seemed to be looking up all around for the No. 18 Tar Heels, who were coming off their second straight bowl season, until the NCAA sent visitors to campus in June to investigate possible rules violations involving defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, a Durham native.
Those players' eligibility for Saturday's season opener against No. 21 LSU in the Georgia Dome was still in question at this writing. And then on Thursday the school announced it was looking into allegations of academic improprieties in the program, which published reports have speculated involve between six and 12 players. All of that has made the marijuana-related arrest of star linebacker Quan Sturdivant on July 10 look awfully insignificant. [Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 1, Austin was suspended indefinitely. "This decision is not a result of the ongoing NCAA review," Davis said in a statement released by the university. "Marvin has violated team rules and has neglected his responsibilities to the team."]
Some key players have been moved to the scout team in preparation for the opener, and exactly which ones suit up for the LSU game may not be determined until moments before kickoff.
The Tar Heels (last season, 8-5, 4-4 in the ACC) should be good regardless, unless a half-dozen starters are somehow out for the season.
Whether or not that's true for archrivals N.C. State and Duke, where the fan bases had distinctly different reactions to 5-7 finishes last year, is still an open question.
Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack, with Russell Wilson again under center, is going to be able to move the chains consistently and score a lot of points. But the defense is going to have to be better to get the team a bowl bid.
And David Cutcliffe's Blue Devils, who have won nine games over the past two seasons after having just eight total victories over the previous five, may well boast the best receiving corps in the conference. But there's a lot of rebuilding to do with plenty of underclassmen involved in the mix.
Of course the Tar Heels will take on both the Wolfpack and the Blue Devils in November, and every team in the ACC except Maryland will visit the Triangle at least once. East Carolina will come to Chapel Hill, Cincinnati to Raleigh and yes, consensus No. 1 Alabama is going to play at Duke.
Here's a quick look at the local ACC teams' prospects for this season, which starts Saturday with three games, including Elon at Duke and Western Carolina at State.
North Carolina (8-5, 4-4)—Davis is 20-18 during his three seasons at the helm and has taken the Tar Heels to back-to-back bowl games.
Twenty-one starters return, but the strength is clearly on the defensive side, where seniors Austin and Sturdivant are preseason All-ACC, along with senior cornerback Kendric Burney, senior safety Deunta Williams and junior end Robert Quinn.
"The mind-set of your football team, and a healthy one, is for them to always stay focused on the aspect of how can I continue to improve and get better," Davis said. "One of the things that excites our coaching staff is that our kids are hungry. They like to be coached and really want to be coached."
Quarterback T.J. Yates, who has started 31 games, returns along with four of five starters from what was a banged-up offensive line last season.
N.C. State (5-7, 2-6)—The Wolfpack lost 12 starters, but the best news is the return of Wilson, who has already played pro baseball with the Northwest League's Tri-City Dust Devils in the Colorado Rockies organization.
The junior passed for 3,027 yards and 31 touchdowns last season.
Junior tight end George Bryan is preseason All-ACC and has been a steady target for the Wolfpack, which is picked to finish fourth in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
"We're confident," said O'Brien, who is 16-21 at the helm and is badly in need of a bowl trip. "We just want to have an average year. We can't go through all the injuries we've had the last two years. Just give us a normal year, and let us play like everybody else to give us an opportunity. I think we're capable of making a run at this thing."
Improvement on defense will be the key to the Pack's final record. Junior linebacker Audie Cole was the leading tackler, as one of only three defensive starters returning from last season's club.
Duke (5-7, 3-5)—Duke will have 17 starters returning, but the most important loss from last season's club was four-year starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who led the ACC in passing last season.
Redshirt sophomore Sean Renfree will fill his shoes and has some of the nation's best targets in the trio of All-ACC junior Donovan Varner, senior Austin Kelly and sophomore Conner Vernon.
"Sean's got 50 throws, not a lot of experience," said Cutcliffe, whose team has been picked to repeat in fifth place in the ACC's Coastal Division. "(But) we've got three guys that caught, what, 170 balls in the previous season, so they've been good with him all summer and the work has been really good. And they've got a lot of confidence in Sean."
The defense, which was ninth in the conference last season, lost five starters, with three of those getting at least honorable mention All-ACC. Junior safety Matt Daniels is the leading returning tackler.
"We've got a lot of young football players and we're going to have to get some of them ready before they're ready," Cutcliffe said. "We'll have a few true freshmen playing in the opener. One of our goals is to play more people than we've been playing."