For all the anticipation and buildup, the opening week of the college football season in North Carolina sure turned out to be a letdown. With the exception of Duke and Wake Forest, which put up video game numbers against inferior FCS opponents, everyone else is already digging themselves out of an 0-1 hole.
And the prospects for at least some of them to improve aren’t great this week as well. At least the worst of Hurricane Irma appears to be steering away from our area and won’t affect the games.
As we wait for the action to begin and pray for our friends and rivals in the path of the storm, here are five questions to think about and consider:
1. What, if anything, can North Carolina do to prevent Louisville’s Lamar Jackson from producing another Heisman highlight reel?
Tar Heels linebacker Andre Smith boasted this week that today’s game at Kenan Stadium “won’t be the Lamar Jackson Show” and that UNC’s defense is “just going to stop anything that he tries to do.”
Considering that the Tar Heels’ defense got lit up by a quarterback making his first career start last week in losing to Cal, the odds of them shutting down the reigning Heisman Trophy are long at best. That’s why UNC’s offense is going to have to do most of the heavy lifting in the effort to limit Jackson’s effectiveness by keeping him off the field as much as possible.
It’s a strategy that nearly worked for Duke last season. But the problem for UNC is that coach Larry Fedora’s fast-paced spread offense doesn’t lend itself to a high time of possession. Perhaps with a freshman quarterback making his first career start and the strong running game it displayed in last week’s opener, the Tar Heels will slow things down. Either way, it can’t afford to turn the ball over and give Louisville any extra possessions. Or as Smith might put it, extra opportunities for the game to turn into the Lamar Jackson Show.
2. Is Wake Forest really as good as it looked against Presbyterian last week or was Presbyterian just that bad?
The Deacons looked like world beaters in their 51-7 domination of Presbyterian in their season opener last Thursday. But as impressive as they were in their record-setting effort, especially on offense, the victory was tempered by the fact that it came against an FCS opponent that won only two games last season and was playing for the first time under a new coach.
Coach Dave Clawson and his team will get a much more accurate gauge on just how good they are when they travel to Chestnut Hill for their annual Atlantic Division battle with Boston College.
The Eagles’ defensive line, anchored by Fayetteville native Harold Landry, will present a much more formidable challenge to Wake’s offensive line — and by extension, quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton, who threw for 231 yards and five touchdowns against the overmatched Blue Hose. Redshirt freshman receiver Greg Dortch might also have a more difficult time getting open against an FBS secondary than he did in his breakout debut while on the other side of the ball, the stamina and concentration of the Deacons’ defense will be severely tested against BC’s newly unveiled uptempo attack.
This is a matchup that has historically gone down to the wire and it figures to do so again. It’s also a game both teams desperately need to win if they have any hope of moving up in the incredibly top-heavy Atlantic Division.
3. Will Tyshon Dye get any touches for ECU this week?
Running back Tyshon Dye received rave reviews from coach Scottie Montgomery during preseason camp and was projected as a potential cure for the Pirates’ anemic ground game from a year ago. But when the lights came on and the popcorn started popping, the graduate transfer from Clemson was nowhere to be found in ECU’s stunning rout at the hands of James Madison.
Dye didn’t have a single carry, an oversight his coach explained away as situational rather than intentional. Maybe so, but when a team’s offense is struggling against an FCS opponent as badly as Montgomery’s was on Saturday, you’d think it might want to give the ball to one of its most talented weapons at least a few times.
And what about Dye? He left Clemson for his final college season to get a chance at being a team’s primary ballcarrier, not a spectator with a great view from the sideline. He could have stayed with the Tigers and done that — and perhaps won another championship ring or two to his collection. For what it’s worth, Montgomery said that he “definitely want(s) to see a much heavier dose of Tyshon Dye” this week. Although that probably won’t make a lot of difference a West Virginia team playing its home opener, it sure would give the Pirates a better chance of winning at some point during the season.
4. Can NC State find anyone capable of making a field goal?
Yes, the Wolfpack has a commitment from North Davidson’s Chris Dunn, the top-ranked prep placekicker in the country. But until he actually arrives and begins to turn that promise into results, coach Dave Doeren and special teams coordinator Eddie Faulkner are going to have to find someone capable of putting the ball through the uprights.
State’s kicking woes continued last week when Carson Wise, a graduate transfer from Carson-Newman who started his career at Virginia Tech, shtoinked a 29-yard field goal attempt off the left upright on his only try. Although the miss didn’t affect the outcome of the game this time, it brought back haunting memories of Kyle Bambard’s missed 33-yard chip shot that cost the Wolfpack an upset of eventual national champion Clemson last season.
State ranked 122nd out of 128 FBS teams with a field goal percentage of .529 (9 of 17) in 2016. If that doesn’t improve, the Wolfpack’s inability to make even the most benign kick will eventually come back to bite it again — if not during today’s home opener against Marshall, but at some other inopportune time this season.
5. Can Duke’s secondary prevent history repeating itself against Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson?
The Wildcats’ quarterback feasted on the Blue Devils a year ago, throwing for 320 yards and three touchdowns — all longer than 25 yards — in leading his team’s 24-13 victory in Evanston. And that was when Duke featured a veteran secondary. Even with the return of Bryon Fields, who missed last season with an injury, this year’s team will have four new starters in the defensive backfield that will be severely tested at Wallace Wade Stadium today.
“I’m looking at the tape and I’m seeing déjâ vu,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said ominously earlier in the week. “But I’m also seeing a better (Northwestern) team.”
This will be the third straight season the Blue Devils and the Wildcats have played one another. While both of those previous meetings were competitive and weren’t decided until the fourth quarter, Duke did not win either one. Today’s game is an important one for the Blue Devils as they look to amass the six wins necessary to return to a bowl with much more difficult tests still to come.
That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!