[ED. NOTE: This morning, Wayne Otto, one of our College Sports Journal contributors, passed away this morning after a short battle with cancer. This piece was one of many great pieces Wayne provided for us here at CSJ, and thought this was a fitting tribute to him. Rest in peace, Wayne.]
For years all along tobacco road, the fall and college football season was just a warm-up for the real thing, college basketball.
The leaves would turn into magnificent fall colors and the college football season would slowly emerge into basketballs dribbling on the hardwood floors around the state.
The state has produced collegiate national championships at Duke (Div. I), North Carolina (I), N.C. State (I), North Carolina Central (II), Guilford (NAIA), Winston-Salem State (II), Warren Wilson College (NCCAA), Davidson Community College (NJCAA III) and Barton College (II), so the basketball pedigree is certainly there at every collegiate level.
Now comes change. College football.
College football might not have surpassed college basketball in the state, but football is now a sports factor with North Carolinians. Even basketball schools like Duke and North Carolina, have football promise and constantly fill their stadiums and play big time football games at all levels of the sport in North Carolina.
This is the 2019 edition of: the best of college football in North Carolina.
Top 15 collegiate rankings
- Appalachian State. A former FCS powerhouse with three national championships on their resume, the Mountaineers are in their sixth season as an FBS member and have just continued to win. 44-11 in their last 55 games, APP State is now king of the hill in NC football.
- Wake Forest. Wake Forest used to be a true basketball school, but coaches Jim Grobe and Dave Clawson changed all of that. Grobe got the program turned around and Clawson has made believers out of the Deacon faithful.
- Duke. Coach David Cutcliffe has turned around the Blue Devils’ fortunes very quickly. Now in his 12th season at the helm, he has guided Duke to six bowl games in seven years. He has brought back the glory days to Duke football which has not been sustained since the 1940’s to 1960’s.
- NC State. Always in the hunt for national attention. Has the most QB alumni in the NFL right now with five. Missing Ryan Finley at QB this season, who is now with the Cincinnati Bengals.
- North Carolina. The Tar Heels have turned to former coach Mack Brown to come in and save the day. Coming off a 2-9 season in 2018, the Tar Heels have moved up on this list. Brown should get the Heels in conference contention soon.
- North Carolina A&T. Last year the Aggies beat East Carolina the week before the Pirates beat North Carolina. Two years ago, the Aggies might have landed at #2 on this list as they were crowned the HBCU national champions.
- East Carolina. Still haven’t recovered from firing Ruffin McNeil. New coach Mike Houston has won everywhere he has ever been so there is no reason to believe that he won’t win in Greenville.
- Charlotte. The 49ers welcome a new coach this season in Will Healy. He was the 2017 Eddie Robinson award winner at Austin-Peay as the nation’s top NCAA DI FCS coach. In just their seventh season the 49ers are still feeling the effects of their transition to the FBS level and membership in C-USA. Coming off a 5-7 2018 campaign, the Niners look to All America candidate, senior RB Benny LeMay to shoulder the load to respectability. The 49ers have struggled but Will Healy appears to be a winner.
- Lenoir-Rhyne. Currently in the top 10 in the D-II national polls, the Bears are a monster for most opponents. Riding the momentum from when Mike Houston was at the helm, LRU has become a national power.
- Campbell. Just in their second year of scholarship football, the Camels have shown signs of desiring to be a football juggernaut. Have shown good progress since leaving the Pioneer Conference and joining the competitive Big South Conference.
- Gardner-Webb. The Bulldogs have fallen on tough times. The Big South is a good football league and that GWU plays a strong non-conference schedule, the ‘Dogs have not shown progress in the win column. They play two FBS opponents this season.
- Western Carolina. Coach Mark Spiers had the Catamounts rolling in the right direction, but the Southern Conference has become really good again. The Cats are still missing the App State natural mountain rivalry since the Apps went FBS.
- Wingate. The Bulldogs have shown D-II consistency over the years and currently reside in the national top 25. Wingate make frequent appearances in the NCAA Division II national championship playoffs.
- North Carolina Central. A couple of years ago the Eagles would have been a lot higher in this poll. NCCU dominated at the D-II for years and went D-I a couple of decades ago and had success as the were MEAC champions just a few years ago. Coach Trei Oliver has been entrusted with bringing back the excitement of winning football to O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
- Davidson. Coach Scott Abell, in his second season at the controls of Wildcat football, guided Davidson to its first winning season since 2007. Off to a 3-1 start this season, the fortunes of football at Davidson look good.
- NC State. Carter-Finley Stadium (57,600 capacity) has been home to the Wolfpack since 1966. Constantly draws more than 50,000 per game and located on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Recent renovations have made this stadium rival SEC stadiums.
- Wake Forest. BB&T Field (31,500) is in a beautiful setting and with the addition of Deacon Towers, the former Groves Stadium has an upscale atmosphere. The stadium has easy access because of the plentiful parking lots adjacent the entry gates.
- Duke. Wallace Wade Stadium (40,004) is the most historic stadium in North Carolina. Opened in 1929, the venue has played host to some of the most historic track & Field events which included World Championships, USA vs Soviet Union international meets, USA Olympic Trials and hosted the 1942 Rose Bowl football game, the only time the Rose Bowl has been played outside of Pasadena, CA. The stadium was the first in NC to install a video board, which it did in 1998. Recent renovations have modernized the venue and the track was taken out so more seats close to the field could be added.
- North Carolina. Keenan Stadium (50,500) opened in 1927 and now sits in almost the center of the UNC campus. Named for William R. Keenan, a major benefactor, the stadium has had numerous renovation projects and sits in a beautiful setting in the midst of a Carolina Pines mini forest.
- Charlotte. Jerry Richardson Stadium (15,314) opened in 2013 when Charlotte hosted the Campbell Camels. Named for the Carolina Panthers former owner Jerry Richardson, the stadium architecture fits nicely with the campus surroundings constructed with Hanson Brick. Built with expansion in the future in mind, the Judy Rose Football Center provides a great backdrop for the south end of the stadium.
Best Game Day Atmosphere
- NC State. Huge parking lots, big crowds, plenty of tailgating and good teams make for a wonderful game day experience.
- North Carolina A&T. The Aggies are a national FCS powerhouse, and the fans appreciate the game day atmosphere. Food, bands, football and socializing to the max. Having the best marching band in the state is an added bonus.
- Appalachian State. App State has long been a football powerhouse and that has galvanized the fan base and turned the expectations higher and higher. Loud and boisterous.
- Wake Forest. Great setting with spacious parking lots and tailgating. Similar to NC State, just not quite as large.
- East Carolina. The Pirates have fallen on hard times (for them) in recent years, but when the Bucs are rolling, ECU could easily be at the top of this list. For decades the Pirates were the best collegiate football program in NC.
Best Tailgating Scene
- NC State. Fairgrounds parking lot is perfect for tailgating. Biggest in the state.
- Wake Forest. Tailgating is in the culture.
- North Carolina A&T. A smaller area, but A&T might have the best quality tailgating in the state.
- Appalachian State. Does a good job with limited stadium parking.
- East Carolina. Years past they might have been ranked #1. Losing football seasons hurt the tailgating.
Best Press Box
- Wake Forest. Deacon Tower and the Skeeter Francis Press Box are second to none in the country. Spacious common areas and work areas for the media.
- NC State. Vaughn Towers and press box is also very spacious with a great working area.
- Duke. The new towers included a nice new media seating area and a spacious common area.
- East Carolina. Have made improvements at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium’s press box in the past few years.
- North Carolina. Keenan Stadium had adequate space but for big games could use more media seating.
Best Media Meal
- Wake Forest. BBQ and smothered chicken are staples here.
- Duke. BBQ and brisket are the standard. Before the new press box was built, Duke catered their media meal and was the best in the country…Bar none!!!
- NC State. Always a quality meal in Raleigh. For early kickoffs NC State features both breakfast and lunch food options.
- North Carolina A&T. Good food in a smaller press box. Quality is never an issue.
- North Carolina. Beat out a few other schools for fifth place on this list by a slim margin.
Best Game Day Parking
- NC State. Fairgrounds parking lot is hard to beat for easy stadium access.
- Wake Forest. The old Reynolds Tobacco Co. lot and the Joel Coliseum lot is a great parking area.
- Duke. Has adequate parking in a lot of different areas. Only a couple of good size lots.
- North Carolina A&T. Has a great tailgating lot and them plenty of campus parking.
- Lenoir-Rhyne. Campus is full of good parking within a short walking distance.
Best Football Coach
- David Cutcliffe (Duke). National coach of the year in 2013. Been to bowl games 6 of the last 7 years. Cutliffe knows his quarterbacks, most recently the New York Giants QB Daniel Jones.
- Mack Brown (North Carolina). Hard not to put a coach with a national championship (Texas) number one on this list, but the competition is quite stiff.
- Mike Houston (East Carolina). Has won at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and has won an FCS national championship at James Madison. Keep an eye on him for the future.
- Dave Clawson (Wake Forest). Much like Cutcliffe at Duke, Clawson has taken the Deacs to new territory. Previous coach Jim Grobe did a wonderful job , but now Clawson has taken the next step. Wake Forest is now a football school.
- Sam Washington (North Carolina A&T). Former coach Rod Broadway really turned the Aggies around and won a couple of HBCU national championships and had an undefeated season. Washington has kept the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard as the Aggies continue to roll.
- Jamie Newman (Wake Forest). After taking over for an injured Sam Hartman in late 2018, Newman has led WFU to an 8-1 record. He just wins and now has landed WFU in the Top 25 polls.
- Zac Thomas (Appalachian State). Was #1 before the season started. Reigning Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the year.
- Quentin Harris (Duke). Tough job stepping in for the departed Daniel Jones. Duke also lost a lot of talent on both sides of the football, but Harris is keeping the Blue Devils a contender.
- Sam Hartman (Wake Forest). Started with success as a true freshman, then got hurt late in the season and Newman took over the controls for the Deacs. Newman has not given up the starting job so Hartman will try and redshirt this season.
- Sam Howell (North Carolina). First true freshman starter at QB in a Tar Heels opener in history. Shows tremendous potential. Could end up being an NFL prospect.
Best Marching Band
- North Carolina A&T (Blue and Gold Marching Machine). Has upped its game in recent years. Also had a fictional movie loosely based on the Aggie band. They are a great band to watch and listen.
- NC State (The Power Sound of the South). The band is huge and basically sounds like a Big Ten or SEC band. Big size, big sound.
- Winston-Salem State (Red Sea of Sound). They were named the nation’s best HBCU band back in August by ESPN.
- Appalachian State (The Band of Distinction). Another power band, they would be higher on most state’s lists but this is a tough competition in NC.
- Johnson C. Smith (The International Institution of Sound). At one time, they might have been the best collegiate band in North Carolina. Just like App State, the bar for excellence on this list is really high. All these bands are national level bands. Don’t leave your seat at halftime.
- Johnson C. Smith. Gold helmet with navy facemask. Bull logo is unique.
- North Carolina Wesleyan. Gold helmet with navy facemask. Bishop on a jumping horse logo. Really cool.
- Lenoir-Rhyne. Black helmet with black facemask. Huge “LR” logo. Good look.
- North Carolina Central. Dark Red helmet with black facemask. Unique eagle head logo.
- Wake Forest. Black helmet with black facemask. Classic flying “WF” logo
Wayne is the owner of Pro-Am Sports is the foremost dealer of game worn uniforms, jerseys and equipment in the world. Pro-Am Sports has been in business for over 30 years and currently has the world’s largest inventory of game used merchandise from the NBA, NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, the minor leagues and colleges. Wayne has also been an author and contributor to the College Sports Journal since its inception in 2012.