The first two weeks of the college football season in North Carolina haven’t gone exactly as expected.
UNC has yet to stop anybody, NC State has yet to impress anybody, East Carolina has already fired its defensive coordinator and the only two FBS teams without a loss are Duke and Wake Forest.
As we wait to see what surprises Week 3 holds, here are five questions to think about and consider:
1. How will Duke and Wake Forest handle prosperity?
The Blue Devils and Deacons are off to flying starts at 2-0 and are both coming off impressive early season wins. Now that they’ve proven their ability to blow out overmatched FBS opponents and win as an underdog, it’s time for them to take the next step and show they can also handle being favored — especially in circumstances that could be considered “trap games.” The Blue Devils, in particular, are riding high after their manhandling of a good Northwestern team last week. Between the confidence they built from that 41-17 victory and the fact that they’ve got a rivalry showdown at UNC next week, it would be easy for them to overlook today’s opponent Baylor. The good news for Duke is that the Bears aren’t the same national contender they’ve been in the past. Rebuilding under former Temple coach Matt Rhule, they’re 0-2 with losses to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio. As for the Deacons, they’re coming off a strong showing on the road in their ACC opener against Boston College last week and have a what promises to be an emotional date at Appalachian State coming up next week. Although they’re anywhere between an 11- to 12½-point favorite against Utah State at home, today’s game figures to be a test of their focus and growth into a winning program.
2, How much of a difference, if any, will ECU’s change of defensive coordinators make?
Scottie Montgomery’s decision to reassign defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson to a non-coaching position within the program and replace him with linebackers coach Robert Prunty last Sunday smacks of desperation rather than a meaningful change. But at this point, anything is worth a try. The Pirates have been torched for an average of 616.5 yards per game in losses to James Madison (34-14) and West Virginia (56-20) to start the season and have lost 11 of its last 12 games dating back to last season. In the aftermath of last week’s loss at West Virginia, in which the Pirates gave up touchdowns on seven of eight first half possessions, Montgomery said it looked as though his team was playing with only 10 players on defense at times. So what exactly will be different today against Virginia Tech, other than the man making the calls? Here’s what Montgomery thinks: “One of the biggest things I think you will see is a little bit of a different variance in the way we play in our fronts. Also we will play a little bit closer to a 4-2-5 than always having the guys shooting in the box, in-and-out of the box. We have to be able to settle down guys and knowing exactly which gaps they have. I think you will see a little bit of variance in our defensive front.” Whether that makes any difference against a second straight nationally ranked opponent is yet to be seen. But as previously stated, things can’t get much worse.
3. Can UNC’s defense find a way to stop anybody?
Despite returning seven starters, a defense that was supposed to carry the Tar Heels while their young offense worked to find a rhythm has been the team’s anchor, not its backbone through the first two weeks of the season. UNC ranks 126th out of 129 FBS teams nationally in total defense at 587.0 yards and has allowed an average of 41 points per game in its two losses to begin the season. And many of the same mistakes that led to an opening day setback to California were repeated last week against Louisville. The Tar Heels have already allowed 42 plays of 10 yards or more. At the rate they’re going, they’ll be burned for 273 of those big plays this season. That’s 125 more they allowed a year ago. Coach Larry Fedora said this week that the problems plaguing his defense have been caused mainly by a lack of communication among the players on the field and are easily fixable. If ever there was an opportunity for UNC to reverse course and finally figure out a way to stop somebody, today’s game at Old Dominion is it. The Monarchs are averaging only 325 yards per game and were only able to muster 17 points last week in a win against UMass of the Mid-American Conference.
4. Is NC State over its post-South Carolina hangover?
The Wolfpack began the season with high hopes, a lot of hype and ultimately, a major disappointment in an opening day loss to South Carolina that saw coach Dave Doeren’s team dominate the stat sheet, but not the scoreboard. The letdown from that game appeared to carry over to State’s home opener last week against Marshall, when it fell behind by 10 points in the first half before finally getting its mojo back. With quarterback Ryan Finley throwing for three touchdowns and running back Reggie Gallaspy scoring twice on the ground, the Wolfpack scored the game’s final 27 points to pull away for the victory. Today, the Wolfpack returns to Carter-Finley against Furman — an 0-2 FCS opponent that should present it with the perfect opportunity to build some momentum for its pivotal ACC opener at Florida State next week.
5. Can North Carolina A&T’s offense keep putting up big numbers against an FBS opponent?
The Aggies have rolled up 101 points in their first two games and quarterback Lamar Raynard leads the nation in passing efficiency while throwing 92 passes without an interception. But all that came against winless Gardner-Webb and Division II Mars Hill. Today, coach Rod Broadway and his MEAC frontrunners will take a step up in competition when it travels to Jerry Richardson Stadium to play in-state foe Charlotte. While the 49ers aren’t exactly a powerhouse — they’re 0-2 and have been outscored 79-14 in their first two games — they are an FBS program as a member of Conference USA. Theoretically, that should give them an advantage in numbers and by extension, talent. This game should give Broadway his best indication of how good his offense really is. At the same time, it could also be a chance for Charlotte’s offense to finally get itself untracked after managing just a single touchdown in each of its first two games against Eastern Michigan and nationally ranked Kansas State.
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.