Another college football season is upon us, with Wake Forest having already kicked things off for North Carolina teams with a record-setting offensive explosion in a 51-7 pounding of Presbyterian on Thursday.
That was only a preliminary to the main events scheduled for this first Saturday in September.
Though one game won’t make or break a season, the first one is always important in setting the tone for what’s to come — especially when it has received as much hype as NC State’s showdown with South Carolina in Charlotte.
While the veteran Wolfpack looks to establish itself as a legitimate ACC contender, UNC and ECU will get a long-awaited first look at their newly retooled and rebuilt lineups. Appalachian State, meanwhile, gets another chance at stealing some of the national spotlight.
As we countdown the final few hours and minutes until the games finally begin, here are five questions to think about and consider:
1, Can NC State rewrite the ‘Law of the Wolf?’
Also known as a hashtag not suitable for family publication, the Law states that the higher the expectations on NC State teams — regardless of the sport — the more likely it is that Wolfpack will underachieve. This theory also works in reverse, but that’s not the case this year for a veteran football team that appears poised for a breakout season. Coach Dave Doeren returns starters at virtually every key position on both sides of the ball and boasts a defensive line that is as good as any in the ACC this side of Clemson and Florida State. State is a 5½-point favorite at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium against a South Carolina team still in the process of rebuilding.
This is a game the State should win. Period. But then, it’s also the kind of game it has traditionally found a way to lose.
It’s a huge opportunity for Doeren and his team to back up the hype that’s been building all offseason and prove to its hopeful fan base that this year might actually be the year things change for them. Though it’s hardly a do-or-die situation, as rival UNC proved by winning 11 straight after an opening loss to USC in 2015, today’s game could potentially be a springboard that helps State build the momentum and confidence it will need to face its more difficult Atlantic Division tests to come. Or it could just as easily be another example of how the Law of the Wolf works.
2, Who will start at quarterback for UNC and how long will he play?
Coach Larry Fedora has succeeded in remaining noncommittal about the subject right up until gameday, to the point that he had the bold capital letters OR printed next to the names of Brandon Harris, Chazz Surratt AND Nathan Elliott on the depth chart that was released on Monday. It’s all but certain that Fedora and each of the quarterbacks already know who will take the first snap and how their playing time will be divided — at least to start. The rest of us will wait until just before kickoff to find out.
Judging from the order of which their names are listed on the aforementioned depth chart and the fact that Harris is the only one of the three to have started a college game, the LSU graduate transfer is the most likely to get the first chance against California this afternoon. But it’s just as likely that Surratt, the prized redshirt freshman, will also see action, probably by the third series. How things play out from there and whether Elliott gets onto the field or not will depend largely on how the game plays out and how each quarterback performs.
3, Should ECU be an underdog against an FCS opponent at home?
Apparently Las Vegas doesn’t issue an official line on games between FBS teams and FCS opponents. But the general consensus is that the Pirates will have their hands full today in their season opener at home against James Madison. The thinking is that ECU is coming off a dismal 3-9 season in coach Scottie Montgomery’s first season and the Dukes are the defending FCS national champions with plenty of returning players in their lineup.
All that is true, but there’s reason to believe that this group of Pirates will be much different and far more formidable than the one that lost nine of its last 10 games to finish 2016. Montgomery has enhanced his roster with five graduate transfers, bolstering his pass rush, secondary and running attack in the process. His already deep receiving corps has been helped by the return of Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson and his quarterback Gardner Minshew has a full year of experience in his system from which to draw.
It should also be noted that while JMU went 14-0 against FCS competition last season, its one foray into the world of the big boys resulted in a 56-28 manhandling at the hands of UNC. Though the Dukes are unquestionably talented and can legitimately win, matchups such as this often turn into a war of attrition — especially if the humidity is high. That gives a distinct advantage to the team with more scholarship players on its roster. Regardless of what its record was last season.
4, Can Appalachian State knock off another Power 5 blueblood?
The Mountaineers are no longer the plucky little guy going up against the college football giant with just a slingshot and a prayer, the way they were 10 years ago when they pulled off perhaps the greatest upset ever by beating Michigan at the Big House. Coach Scott Satterfield’s team is a legitimate FBS program coming off two straight 10-win seasons and a conference championship.
As such, App State is going to show up between the hedges at Georgia today just to collect a hefty paycheck and be part of the show. As it proved on opening day last year by taking Tennessee to overtime in Knoxville, this is a team that won’t be intimidated by either an SEC opponent or the hostile environment its home field provides.
The Mountaineers have the offensive experience and firepower to pull off the upset, with quarterback Taylor Lamb, 1,000-yard rusher Jalin Moore and top receiver Shaedon Meadors all back. The big question will be whether their defense is big, physical or deep enough to contain UGA’s talented running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
5, What does Duke have to gain by playing NC Central?
The main purpose of the “Bull City Gridiron Classic” is to build and foster community relations between the culturally diverse neighbor schools. It was started in the aftermath of of the infamous Duke lacrosse scandal and has become something of a local tradition that does actually benefit both teams. For NCCU, the benefit is the exposure and the paycheck. For Duke, it’s an opportunity to ease into the regular season with what amounts to a glorified exhibition that allows coach David Cutcliffe to work out some of the kinks under game conditions and give some younger players valuable experience.
It’s a great opportunity to build some early confidence and pad your record with a win, as Wake Forest did Thursday in its big win against Presbyterian — just as long as nobody important gets hurt.
That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!