Not Ready for Gameday Players: The Charlotte 49ers

This is a terrific time to be in the business of college football. Between record television deals, rich bowl contracts, and the current status of football as America’s number one sport (despite the controversies), if you’re getting involved in college football, your future paycheck just added a zero. It’s no wonder that the University of North Carolina-Charlotte added a football program two years ago, playing as an FCS Independent. What is a wonder is why they’re already being allowed to join the FBS.

Charlotte’s football dreams go further back than the first kickoff two years ago. They conducted a feasibility study in 2006, and the board of trustees voted to get approve Chancellor Phil Dubois’ plan in late 2008, but it took four full years before playing their first Division I football game. Of course, the school had to build a football stadium first, and that was a whopper of a doing in itself. The stadium’s formal name is Jerry Richardson Stadium, and the field’s name is McColl-Richardson Field. Yes, Jerry Richardson’s name is doubled up, as he both matched the school’s asking price of $5 million over 13 years for naming rights to the field, but also donated $10 million to the new football program so the stadium would be named after him as well. The real controversy in this is that Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, had just requested $87.5 million in public funding from the City of Charlotte to renovate Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers play. Alas, we live in a corporate oligarchy masking itself as democracy, so rich people fail to surprise me at this point.

Once Charlotte did start playing, the results were decidedly mixed, though probably more positive than most brand-spanking new programs can attest to. The 49ers had back to back 5-6 seasons, doing fine against the lower rungs of college football, but doing almost no business against FCS’ true powers. The best victory in 2013 came against #25 Gardner-Webb in a 53-51 shootout, where the Niners came back from 21-down in the fourth quarter. In their five other contests against ranked opponents, there wasn’t a win to be had, but plenty of punishments. Charlotte lost those games by an average of nearly 21 points, and that’s including the outlier of the 28-35 loss to #22 Wesley College. Between the losses to #16 James Madison, #13 UNC-Pembroke, #24 Charleston Southern, and #3 Coastal Carolina, the average deficit increases to over 24 points.

Did things improve in 2014, beneath the mediocre 5-6 record? No. Sorry, I meant to type “not really”, though on the whole the answer truly is “no”. Sure, they beat Wesley this time, and they only got drubbed once, by Coastal Carolina. However, if anybody looked to last season as the reason why Charlotte is making the jump to FBS, there’s no evidence to be had. They lost to The Citadel 63-56 in double overtime. Teams in the FBS don’t lose to The Citadel! Well except when South Carolina did back in 1990. But that was totally different. Everette Sands was a running back for the Bulldogs at the time, of course they were going to win! The dude is tough. Seriously though, are you telling me this team can reasonably compete among the 128 top teams in college football? I’m not sure if the 49ers even belong in the conversation of teams that deserve recognition. Hell, with the evidence presented, I'm more inclined to make The Citadel a regular competitor in the FBS.

If there’s a conference in the FBS where the 49ers can win a game, it’s Conference USA. Charlotte’s fellow not-ready-for-prime-time player Old Dominion joined their ranks last season, and went .500 in both conference and out-of-conference play, finishing 6-6. It’s appropriate to note Old Dominion not just because of the FCS-to-FBS connection, but because they’re a similar team in play style, particularly on offense.

Charlotte runs an offense that thrives on the big plays. Starting running back Kalif Phillips racked up nearly 1500 yards last season, and put up 20 touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Throw in starting QB Matt Johnson averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and the 49ers run game can be overwhelming. The passing game is mostly one-dimensional, highlighted by 5’9”, 160-pound slot receiver Austin Duke. Duke was The Man last year among the 49ers receiving corps, totaling 1373 yards and nine touchdowns. His closest competition, Trent Bostick, had over 1000 fewer yards receiving. That kind of disparity is almost unheard of, but considering the offense averaged 487 yards per game, it’s hard to argue with results, scoreboard aside.

That’s pretty much all of the positive stuff I could rummage up, considering their defense couldn’t get off the field, even against the worst of the FCS, and their special teams game is abhorrent, averaging 36 yards per punt and being forced to kick 25 field goals over 11 games on just 75% efficiency. Of course, plenty of FBS teams have awesome offenses and terrible defenses. Just look at the Pac-12! 

It’s not like improvement is impossible, or that the program is doomed from the start. The school is sticking with journeyman coach Brad Lambert, which isn’t the worst idea in the world. Lambert got his start as a graduate assistant on Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners during the 1988 and 1989 seasons, and briefly coached in the SEC as Jim Donnan’s defensive coordinator during Donnan’s tenure as Georgia head coach. His gig prior to being hired by Charlotte in 2011 was defensive coordinator at Wake Forest under Jim Grobe. The most prominent Demon Deacon Lambert developed during his time at WF was Aaron Curry, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Curry is now Lambert’s defensive line coach, so it’s good to see Lambert is the kind of coach that remembers who helped get his bread buttered. 

Charlotte 49ers football has a daunting task in front of itself, and is taking a step forward from which they cannot step back. As Rixon “Fast” Lane reminds us, there is no conference relegation in college football. If you stink often enough, there’s no coming back from that. Even if you do win, you’re still judged by who you beat. Marshall was one game away from being undefeated, and even they couldn’t get the College Football Playoff committee to sniff at them. If Charlotte is looking to take the NCAA by storm, they can take a seat. If they’re willing to compete and focus on getting better year over year? Well then, they might just make it yet.