This final college football Saturday in October has a chance to be one of extremes for teams representing North Carolina schools.
For NC State, there’s a chance to make history under the shadow of a Golden Dome at Notre Dame while at the other end of the spectrum, UNC celebrates its homecoming trying to avoid taking another big step on the way toward rock bottom.
In between, Duke and Wake Forest will try to break losing streaks and get back on track for bowl eligibility and Appalachian State tries to stay in the driver’s seat for a conference championship while three FCS teams look to protect and enhance their lofty national rankings.
As we wait to see how it all works out, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:
1. How big a deal is today’s game at Notre Dame for NC State?
In the big picture, this is the very definition of a “house money” matchup, with nothing really to lose for a Wolfpack team that will get a shot at winning the ACC Atlantic Division title next week against Clemson no matter what happens today. That having been said, there’s still plenty at stake for coach Dave Doeren and his 14th-ranked team.
Right or wrong, Notre Dame remains part of the gold standard of college football. As such, there’s nothing that will catch the attention of the national media and others whose opinions make a difference than beating the Irish on their own home field.
With a win today, the Wolfpack can transform itself from just another good team in the middle of the rankings into a top-10 team squarely in the national playoff conversation. It can also go a long way toward accomplishing the goal of athletic director Debbie Yow on the day she fired former coach Tom O’Brien — that of shedding the status quo of mediocrity and becoming a program capable of playing for titles.
Despite their disparate football histories, State actually has a favorable history against the Irish. Not only has it it won both previous meetings, including last year during Hurricane Matthew, but it also has yet to allow Notre Dame to score a touchdown against it. In keeping with today’s theme of extremes, today’s game has the potential to be a classic battle of strengths.
The Irish comes in ranked sixth nationally in rushing offense behind a Heisman Trophy candidate, running back Josh Adams, and massive left tackle Mike McGlinchey, touted as the best offensive lineman in the country. The Wolfpack counters with a defense ranked No. 6 nationally in rushing defense, led by end Bradley Chubb, who may very well be the best defensive lineman in the country. As intriguing as that battle promises to be, the game will likely be decided on the other side of the ball by the effectiveness of State’s offensive playmakers.
2. Does UNC have any healthy players left to at least put up a fight in its homecoming game against Miami?
The list of Tar Heels out for the season because of injury grew to 17 this week with the addition of graduate transfer running back Stanton Truitt, who had yet to play a snap this season. Of even greater concern, the ballcarrier that actually leads the team in rushing — freshman Michael Carter — is listed as out for today’s game against Coastal Division leading Miami. That means the Tar Heels are down to just one healthy scholarship running back. And that’s not even the most concerning of UNC’s problems as it tries to salvage something out of a lost season that can still get much worse with four games remaining.
A week ago, Virginia Tech hung 59 points on coach Larry Fedora’s team thanks to a dismal performance in which the Tar Heels allowed touchdowns on an interception return, a fumble return and a punt return — in addition to several of the conventional variety. The Hokies also put a physical hurting on not one, but two UNC quarterbacks.
The Hurricanes have the potential to do the same kind of damage if the Tar Heels’ porous offensive line doesn’t start blocking somebody, their receivers start getting open and catching the ball and their defense doesn’t stop giving up demoralizing “catastrophic” scoring plays at an alarming rate.
3. How motivated will Wake Forest be to exact some revenge on Louisville for its part in the WakeyLeaks scandal ?
Deacons coach Dave Clawson has been quick and adamant about deflecting attention away from the high-profile event that clouded his team’s relationship with Atlantic Division rival Louisville last season. His players have been programed to avoid the subject as well. But don’t let anyone tell you that today’s game against the Cardinals in Winston-Salem doesn’t have just a little extra meaning because of the scandal that rocked college football a year ago.
For those with a short memory, Louisville was front and center in the controversy that saw former Wake fullback and radio analyst Tommy Elrod give away his school’s playbook to opponents before they played the Deacons. The scandal came to light when Wake’s game plan information was found in a locker room the day before it played at Louisville.
As bad as the situation was — the Cardinals were fined $25,000 by the ACC for their part in the scandal — they made things worse by being unapologetic about the advance intel from which his team benefitted.
Although the 44-12 final score might suggest that Louisville didn’t need the extra help in preparing for the Deacons, consider that Wake gave Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson fits and led the game 12-10 after three quarters before things fell apart during the final 15 minutes. Had Louisville not had advance notice of its plays, might Clawson’s team have scored some touchdowns instead of settling for four field goals and been far enough ahead to hold on for the victory? We’ll never know. But you can bet that it will be on the Deacons’ minds as they look for revenge and an end to a frustrating three-game losing streak at home today.
4. Can Duke continue its Lane Stadium magic?
The trip to Blacksburg isn’t usually a pleasant experience for any visiting football team, especially one in the throes of a four-game losing streak and still needing two more wins to gain bowl eligibility. But considering recent history, today’s game at Lane Stadium might be just the tonic the Blue Devils need to get back on track.
Consider that coach David Cutcliffe’s team has won its last two games on Virginia Tech’s home field, the most recent coming in 2015 when Thomas Sirk snuck over the goal line for a two-point conversion in the fourth overtime.
Though today’s matchup would seem to be a mismatch, with Duke struggling to score points and the Hokies coming off a game in which it nearly scored 60, the Blue Devils could potentially benefit from the fact that Tech could get caught looking ahead to next week’s Coastal Division showdown with Miami.
5. Will App State wait until the fourth quarter to get the job done again this week?
The Mountaineers are back on top of the Sun Belt Conference standings at 4-0 in the league, but they’ve been anything but dominant of late. In two of their last three games, they’ve had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to overcome a league foe. In the other game, last week against FBS upstart Coastal Carolina, they trailed late into the third quarter before finally waking up and putting the game away.
For the season, App State has outscored its opponents 84-31 in the fourth quarter behind senior quarterback Taylor Lamb, who has already set a school career record for touchdown passes.
The Mountaineers will be looking to take care of business earlier than usual today when they step out of conference play to take on UMass in Amherst today. It’s a rematch of the 2006 FCS national championship in which App State defeated the Minutemen 28-17 for the second of its three straight titles.
While the Mountaineers have gone on to achieve success at the FBS level since, UMass is still struggling with the transition. The Minutemen are just 1-6 on the season, however they have scored 50 or more points in each of their last two games and are coming off their first win last week against Georgia Southern.
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.