The college football season in North Carolina got off to a dramatic start Thursday with Wake Forest pulling out an overtime win on the road at Tulane behind an impressive debut performance by true freshman quarterback Sam Hartman.
That, however, was only the warmup for the what promises to be a pivotal opening weekend around the state.
Duke will be the next to take the field with a Friday night matchup against Army at Wallace Wade Stadium, before everyone else gets going on Saturday. Two of those games are of particular interest, since the outcomes of North Carolina’s opener at California and East Carolina’s in-state battle with NC A&T could go a long way toward determining the direction of each team’s season.
And the future of each team’s coach.
As we count down the final hours until college football finally returns in full swing, here are five questions about this weekend’s game to think about and consider:
1. Is opening night a good time to face a team that runs the triple option?
It’s never a good time to try and defend an opponent that runs the confounding, ball-control offense, with its cut blocks, deception and misdirection. But if you have to do it, as Duke does against Army, the first game of the season is probably the most optimal time. That’s because you can start preparing for it earlier and have extra opportunities to work on stopping it during camp.
The Blue Devils are no strangers to the triple option, with ACC Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech on the schedule every year. Coach David Cutcliffe’s team has traditionally had success against the Yellow Jackets, winning 43-20 in a game last season that snapped a six-game losing streak. It also played Army the previous week, holding the Black Knights to just 268 total yards, a game Duke lost 21-16 in large part because of their own mistakes.
Another thing the Blue Devils have going for them is that they won’t have to deal with Ahmad Bradshaw anymore. Army’s catalyst and leader for the past three years has graduated, leaving an untested quarterback to run the triple option.
2. Can UNC do to Cal what Cal did to it in last year’s opener?
The Tar Heels’ 2017 season got off to an ominous start when the Bears, with a new coach and a first-time starting quarterback, traveled cross-country and won 35-30 at Kenan Stadium. A year later, coach Larry Fedora has taken his team west with hopes of returning the favor.
This is a game that could go a long way toward helping UNC flush the memory of last year’s 3-9 disaster and set the stage for a successful bounce-back season. At the same time, it could just as easily knock the Tar Heels back and crush whatever optimism they’ve built for the new season if things don’t go well.
It’s anybody’s guess what to expect from UNC. But while it will be without multiple players as the result of Shoegate suspensions and injuries to key contributors such as defensive tackle Aaron Crawford and running back Michael Carter, UNC will still have plenty of playmakers available. That includes an experienced starting quarterback available in Nathan Elliott, leading receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams and starting defensive ends Malik Carney and Tomon Fox, whose suspensions won’t begin until next week.
3. Will ECU be at a disadvantage because A&T has already played a game?
Yes, the Aggles will benefit from the fact that they’ve already got a game under their belt to work out some of the early kinks and get a feel for their new coach Sam Washington’s sideline style. It also doesn’t hurt that they won the game, gaining confidence by beating a top-10 FCS opponent on the road.
At the same time, though, that 20-17 win at Jacksonville State could turn out to be just as much a benefit to the Pirates because of the opportunity it gives coach Scottie Montgomery and his staff to scout and prepare for what A&T will try to do. Specifically, it helped expose several areas in which ECU can potentially exploit — an inexperienced offensive line and a secondary that was prone to giving up big plays in the passing game.
Other than avoiding turnovers, the Pirates’ biggest challenge Saturday could be resisting the temptation to look past the Aggies toward a much more difficult and emotional test against UNC next week. After losing to an FCS opponent on opening day last year, with their coach’s job potentially on the line, they should know better than to let that happen.
4. How dangerous is NC State’s opening day opponent James Madison?
The Dukes aren’t some guarantee game FCS fodder to help the Wolfpack ease into the season. They’re a well-coached veteran team that won their subdivision’s national championship two seasons ago and played in the title game again last year. They’re 28-2 in coach Mike Houston’s two seasons with the program.
And they beat an in-state FBS opponent, ECU, in the opening game of the 2017 season.
JMU presents a particular challenge to State’s rebuilt defense with Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci at quarterback and Raleigh native Marcus Marshall — a Georgia Tech transfer — at running back. Clearly, there’s plenty to be concerned about.
But that having been said, if Ryan Finley, his stable of talented receivers and a defense that still has plenty of talent left over despite all its losses stay focused and take care of their business, the Wolfpack should have more than enough firepower to get their season off to a winning start.
5. Can Appalachian State add another chapter to its giant-killing legacy?
Eleven years ago to the day, the Mountaineers shocked the college football world by upsetting Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was a win that helped send App State to a third straight FCS national championship and earned the program the reputation as a giant killer.
That reputation now works against the Mountaineers whenever they go up against a blue blood opponent, as they are on Saturday at Penn State.
There is no sneaking up on teams anymore. They know who App State is. And they know that the Mountaineers are no longer a brave little David going up against Goliath, but rather a legitimate FBS program that has won or shared the last two Sun Belt Conference titles and won bowl games in each of the last three years.
Coach Scott Satterfield’s current team is a 24-point underdog against the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions. With a new starting quarterback and new coordinators on both sides of the ball, an upset seems unlikely Saturday. But that’s why they play the games. As App State proved exactly 11 years ago, you just never know what might happen.
That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games!