Five questions to ponder before kickoff

FOOD FOR THOUGHT WHILE WAITING FOR KICKOFF OF THIS WEEKEND'S COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAMES INVOLVING NORTH CAROLINA TEAMS

UNC coach Mack Brown greets defensive lineman Aaron Crawford after Crawford sacked South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley in the second half of Saturday's game in Charlotte (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

The college football season got off to a winning start in the Old North State last week with six of the seven FBS teams picking up opening week victories. And the only team that didn’t win, East Carolina, played an in-state opponent in coach Mike Houston’s debut.

So something had to give.

This week’s schedule features four in-state rivalry games, although just one — Appalachian State vs. Charlotte — matches two FBS programs against one another. The others — NC State vs. Western Carolina, Duke vs. NC A&T and ECU vs. Gardner-Webb — are all guarantee games against FCS squads.

The most meaningful matchup of the day, however, is North Carolina’s ACC opener against Miami a Kenan Stadium, a game in which coach Mack Brown and his Tar Heels look to build on an already surprising start.

As we wait to see which teams are able to keep their early season momentum going, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Are the Tar Heels really as good as they looked against South Carolina?

Let’s face it, as warm and fuzzy a story as UNC’s win in the first game of Brown’s second chapter in Chapel Hill was, the Gamecocks gave the Tar Heels plenty of help in their fourth quarter rally from a 20-9 deficit.

That having been said, it took some nice adjustments by the new coaching staff and great execution on both sides of the ball for UNC to put together those two 90-plus yard drives to take the lead, then hold onto it with a pair of Myles Wolfolk interceptions. This is clearly not the same team that lost nine games in each of the past two seasons. Just how much different it is will become a lot clearer after today, when Brown’s Tar Heels play their ACC opener against Miami.

While the Hurricanes aren’t nearly the intimidating force they were a year ago when they humiliated UNC to the tune of 47-10 in a blowout that likely sealed former coach Larry Fedora’s fate, they are still big, talented and confident. They will present a more difficult challenge than a South Carolina team headed for a downward spiral. But it’s a challenge the Tar Heels can certainly meet, especially with the kind of atmosphere that’s expected tonight under the lights of a newly refurbished Kenan Stadium with an equally refurbished old coach leading the way on the sidelines.

2. What does NC State need to work on most in order to get ready for the meat of its schedule?

These first two weeks of the season are the college football equivalent of the NFL’s preseason for the Wolfpack. They’re games State should be able to win without any trouble while giving its young replacement starters an opportunity to ease into their new roles with only a minimum of stress. 

Under that context, last Saturday’s 34-6 victory against East Carolina couldn’t have gone any better. Quarterback Matthew McKay got his feet wet and looked sharp both passing and running the ball. Freshman running back Zonovan Knight looked explosive, and a rebuilt offensive line was solid while the defense held the opposition without a touchdown.

But it was anything but a clean performance. There were two fumbles — neither of which resulted in a turnover — penalties that nullified big plays and a breakdown in kick coverage that allowed a long return that was also called back by penalty, not to mention assorted missed assignments and other minor mistakes. 

The task for coach Dave Doeren’s team today against the Catamounts, a team that has lost its last eight games dating back to last season, is to work on cleaning up those issues before the 2019 season begins in earnest next week with a trip to West Virginia.

3. What kind of game can Duke expect from A&T?

The Aggies aren’t Alabama. But the Blue Devils better not sleep on them and simply walk out onto the field expecting to roll over their FCS opponent as easily as it’s been against fellow in-state MEAC entry NC Central in recent years. A&T might be a division down from Duke and light-years less talented than the Crimson Tide team they faced in Week 1. But they’re also no pushover.

Coach Sam Washington’s veteran team is ranked 15th in this week’s FCS poll after an opening week win against Elon and it is coming off two straight HBCU national championships. It has also knocked off an FBS team in each of the past two years. Duke, however, is by far the best team the Aggies have faced over that stretch, and coach David Cutcliffe’s team will enjoy significant advantages in size, depth and talent.

While the Blue Devils won’t necessarily have to bring their “A” game to win today, they won’t simply be able to go through the motions, either. And they’re going to know they’ve been in a game when all is said and done. 

4. How important is it for ECU to win its home opener today?

It’s huge. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and for Mike Houston, this is his chance. 

The home opener at a newly expanded and updated Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will have a large crowd hopeful to see signs that things really are going to be different (and better) under Houston than they were during Scottie Montgomery’s watch. Gardner-Webb is an FCS opponent that the Pirates have to beat in order to keep the positive momentum that started with Houston’s hiring in December going.

But this is still no gimme. Keep in mind that ECU has lost to an FCS opponent in its last two home openers. But Gardner-Webb isn’t James Madison or NC A&T. The Bulldogs have recorded just one winning season since 2010 and have only four victories over the past two seasons combined. In other words, they’re the perfect fodder for a team that needs a win — and an impressive one, at that — in the worst possible way.

5. Is App State-Charlotte a rivalry game?

Not yet. Just because two teams are located in close proximity to one another doesn’t automatically make them rivals. That’s the case with these two neo-FBS programs. The Mountaineers are far ahead of the 49ers in becoming an established program at college football’s highest level, while Charlotte is still struggling to gain a foothold. 

App State dominated the first meeting last year in Boone, winning 45-9 behind a perfect performance from quarterback Zac Thomas. And by perfect, that means perfect — 14 of 14 passing for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas is back and while it’s doubtful he’ll be that efficient, he and his teammates will likely be good enough to win today’s rematch in Charlotte just as handily.

It’s going to take something out of the ordinary, like a 49ers’ upset, to plant the seeds of a rivalry that only grows over the course of time. Until then, this is just another game for the Mountaineers on the way to another 10-plus win season.

That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games and remember to hydrate!