Five questions to ponder before kickoff

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

Sam Howell prepares to pass during UNC's win against Miami earlier this season (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

It’s rivalry week. Sort of.

Because while North Carolina and NC State will be meeting at Carter-Finley on a regular-season ending Saturday that also includes such classic rivalries as Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan and Georgia-Georgia Tech, Wake Forest is finishing its schedule against Syracuse while Duke is playing out the string against Miami.

Regardless of the emotion involved or what’s at stake, there’s always something special about the final full weekend of the college football season. So as we prepare for one final celebration of all that is great about Saturdays in the fall — whether you feel like celebrating after the game or not — here are five questions to think about and consider:

1,  Are the Tar Heels ready to “take the next step” and finish strong?

Nine of UNC’s 11 games this season have been decided by a touchdown or less, with five of them coming down to the final play of regulation or overtime. As competitive as the Tar Heels have been in coach Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill, they’re only 3-6 in those close games and haven’t won one since Chazz Surratt’s interception at the goal line against Duke on Oct. 26. Given that history and the fact that bowl eligibility is on the line, it would behoove UNC to take care of business early today against an opponent with a penchant for slow starts and not let the game go down to the wire. But if it does, the Tar Heels are going to have to find some way to flip the script and, as Brown said earlier this week, take “the next step” in their development. “We have to win these games that are close,” he said. “We’ve won some, but we’ve lost more than we’ve won and that’s disappointing. We really need to finish well, and I think the guys (are) ready for this challenge.”

2,  Does the Wolfpack have any prayer of defending Sam Howell’s deep passing game?

The challenge for State against UNC today is keeping the game close to make a difference down the stretch. In order to do that, coach Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack will have to find a way to keep Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell from picking apart its patchwork secondary with his strong arm and dynamic corps of receivers. The true freshman has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and a school-record 32 touchdowns this season — 12 of which have been for 30 yards or more. That doesn’t bode well for a defense that has lost five cornerbacks to injury this season and has a history of giving up big plays. So what can State do to limit Howell’s effectiveness downfield? The best way is by keeping him under duress with a consistent pass rush that limits his ability to find his open receivers. But it will also help to keep him off the field as much as possible by running the football and dominating the time of possession battle.

3, Now that Virginia appears to have locked up the ACC’s Orange Bowl berth, what’s at stake for Wake?

A win would give the Deacons nine wins and keep alive their hopes for only the second double-digit win in school history. That we know for sure. What’s less certain is where coach Dave Clawson’s team would have the chance at getting that significant 10th victory. Other than Clemson being ticketed for the College Football Playoff and Virginia likely to end up in the Orange Bowl after winning the Coastal Division title, Wake desperately needs a win today to remain in the ACC’s top tier of postseason tie-ins. That’s important, because the Deacons and their small fan following aren’t very popular among bowl committees looking to sell tickets and enhance television ratings. Even though Wake would have more wins, it’s likely that both Virginia Tech and Louisville will leapfrog it in the bowl pecking order. But even if that happens, a nine-win Deacons team couldn’t fall any lower than either the Belk, Pinstripe, Sun or Music City bowls.

4,  How important for East Carolina is today’s season finale against Tulsa?

The Pirates can already claim victory in coach Mike Houston’s first season as coach now that they’ve finally surpassed the three-win plateau they’ve been stuck on for the past three years. But can a 4-8 season really be called a success? Not really. That’s why today’s game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium means so much. A win against the 3-8 Golden Hurricane would represent a huge step forward a program that has been stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels for far too long. It would send ECU into the offseason on a two-game winning streak (with five victories overall) and create the kind of momentum that could have a positive effect on recruiting, ticket sales and most importantly, the solid core of young returning talent upon which Houston can continue building.  

5, Is Charlotte due for a letdown after clinching bowl eligibility last week?

By now you’ve probably seen the viral video of a shirtless 49ers coach Will Healy celebrating last week’s bowl eligibility-clinching victory against Marshall while wearing the head of his team’s mascot in a raucous locker room. The party atmosphere was well-deserved, considering that it marked the first time Charlotte has ever qualified for the postseason as an FBS program. The problem is that Healy and his players still have one more regular season game left to play. It will be interesting to see how much of a hangover — literally and figuratively — they’ll have when they play on the road at Old Dominion this afternoon. The good news for the 49ers is that they probably don’t have to bring their “A” game to beat an opponent that’s on a 10-game losing streak.

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