Five questions to ponder before kickoff

Here are five things to think about and consider as we wait for today's football games involving state teams to begin

Duke linebacker Kevin Gehsmann rings the Victory Bell following the Blue Devils’ 28-27 win against North Carolina on Nov. 10, 2016, at Wallace Wade Stadium. The two teams renew their rivalry Saturday at Kenan Memorial Stadium. (Christine T. Nguyen / The North State Journal)

It might only be the first Saturday of fall, but this week’s college football schedule involving state teams feels more like the end of the season with rivalry games and virtual must-win situations all across the board.

While North Carolina and Duke battle it out for the Victory Bell, neighbors Wake Forest and Appalachian State will meet for the first time in more than a decade — and for the first time ever in Boone. In Tallahassee, NC State will play a game that will help determine its place in the Atlantic Division hierarchy while in East Hartford, Conn., East Carolina will play a game that could be its best chance at winning a game this season.

As we wait to see how it all shakes out, here are five questions to think about and consider:  

1. Is Duke really as good as it has looked so far this season?

The Blue Devils are off to an impressive start, with an offense that leads the ACC at 45.0 points per game and a surprising defense that ranks second in the league in sacks while allowing only 14.7 points per game. And yet, they’re only a 1½-point favorite against an injury-riddled UNC team that has struggled to stop anybody and whose only win thus far is against an overmatched Old Dominion. Clearly coach David Cutcliffe’s team hasn’t won over its skeptics yet. But that can change today with a strong performance by Daniel Jones and Co. in Chapel Hill. With a win, Duke would not only improve to 4-0 for only the 10th time in school history and second time since 1994, but it would also show the world that it really is as good as it has looked while also serving notice to Coastal Division favorites Virginia Tech and Miami that it is a force to be reckoned with as the season progresses.

2. How will UNC be able to protect quarterback Chazz Surratt?

No fewer than 15 regular contributors are either out or trying to play through injuries for the Tar Heels against Duke today, including three-fifths of their starting offensive line. Sophomore tackle William Sweet was one of three new additions to the “out for the season” list on UNC’s injury report while center Cam Dillard and All-ACC left tackle Bentley Spain are listed as “questionable.” Dillard hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury two weeks ago against Louisville and Spain played only a handful of snaps against ODU last Saturday because of a hand injury. The Tar Heels were already going to have their hands full protecting their young quarterback and opening up running lanes against a Duke defensive front that has already recorded 10 sacks and allowed an average of just 47 yards per game on the ground. That task will be even tougher under the current circumstances. Surratt is a mobile quarterback who has already shown his ability to make plays with his legs in his first three college games. He’s likely going to need every ounce of that elusiveness to have any success against the rival Blue Devils, given the state of the patchwork offensive line in front of him.

3. Can NC State benefit from Florida State’s inactivity?

The Seminoles haven’t played a game since their opening night loss to Alabama on Sept. 2 as a result of Hurricane Irma. It’s anybody’s guess how the unexpected layoff will affect coach Jimbo Fisher’s team. A lot will depend on how much it has been able to practice in the aftermath of the devastating storm. Although the extra time off has given FSU an opportunity to help incorporate true freshman quarterback James Blackman into its offense after the season-ending injury to starter Deondre Francois, it also presents the Wolfpack with a major opportunity to knock off one of the ACC’s big boys and establish itself as a legitimate Atlantic Division contender. Even with the extra preparation, a first-time starting quarterback like Blackman figures to be red meat for Bradley Chubb, Kentavius Street and the rest of State’s talented defensive line. And it figures to take at least a quarter for the rest of the Seminoles to shake off the rust that comes with not having played in two weeks. The Wolfpack has already failed to take advantage of one chance to score a signature victory this season. This is an even more important opportunity.

4. How much will Appalachian State’s homefield advantage factor into today’s game against Wake Forest?

After playing the first 22 times in the series with its in-state rival in Winston-Salem between 1975-2001, the Deacons have finally agreed to make their first trip up the mountain to Kidd Brewer Stadium.

And the atmosphere promises to be electric.

A sellout crowd is expected to cheer on a team that has won 10 or more games in each of the past two seasons and is the defending Conference USA champion. Having an in-state school from a Power 5 conference coming to visit further legitimizes a program that has made rapid strides since making the jump to the FBS level in 2014. Winning the game would only add to the significance. But while the Mountaineers figure to get a boost from their supportive fans, it’s going to take more than just Adrenaline for the home team to pull off the victory against their vastly improved opponent.

For one thing, coach Scott Satterfield’s team will have to guard against getting too jacked up, as it was last year when Miami came to Boone. The Hurricanes took the air right out of the stadium by scoring 21 first quarter points on the way to an anticlimactic 45-10 victory.

App State will also have to contend with a defense that has always been respectable even when the Deacons’ record wasn’t and a newly enhanced offense that’s averaging 43.7 points per game through the first three games this season — all wins — behind the talents of veteran quarterback John Wolford and freshman playmakers Greg Dortch and Arkeem Byrd.

5. Will ECU be helped or hurt by the schedule change that has it playing at UConn on Sunday?

The Pirates were originally scheduled to have this week off following physically demanding nonconference tests against West Virginia and Virginia Tech. But instead of enjoying a strategically-timed, badly-needed bye to help rest up and heal for the start of American Athletic Conference play, coach Scottie Montgomery’s team will now head to UConn as part of a schedule shuffling caused by hurricane-related postponements.

The Pirates will head into the game — which is being played on Sunday because of stadium availability — uncertain about the status of nearly their entire secondary. Starters Tim Irvin, Korrin Wiggins and Devon Sutton all limped off the field with injuries suffered during Saturday’s 64-17 pounding at the hands of the Hokies while another defensive back — Colby Gore — is still involved in the school’s concussion protocol. Quarterback Thomas Sirk also missed last week’s game because of concussion issues.

As inconvenient as the schedule change might be for ECU, it could turn into an advantage. Its chances of actually winning a game and getting off to a 1-0 start in the AAC are much more realistic against the rebuilding Huskies, who were picked to finish last in the league’s East Division, than against 21st-ranked South Florida, which the Pirates were supposed to play in their conference opener. This could realistically be ECU’s best chance at earning a win this season.

That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!

And don’t forget to keep track of today’s action at it happens on Twitter by following NSJ writers Brett Friedlander at @BFriedACC and Shawn Krest at @shawnkrest.