Five questions to ponder before kickoff

Here are five things to think about and consider as we wait for today's football games involving state teams to begin

Clemson's loss to Syracuse opens the door for NC State in the ACC Atlantic Division. Can the Wolfpack take advantage of the opportunity? (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)

There’s no telling what to expect on the football field today after a wild, eventful Friday the 13th that has shaken up college sports in the ACC and nationally both on and off the field.

Clemson’s surprising loss at Syracuse has opened the door for others — especially NC State and the rest of the Atlantic Division — and suddenly thrown a league championship race that appeared to be cut-and-dried up for grabs.

As we wait to see which teams take advantage of the opportunity and which fall by the wayside, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:  

1. How will NC State react to Clemson’s loss?

No one in the ACC stands to benefit more from the Tigers’ unexpected stumble than the Wolfpack. Coach Dave Doeren’s team is now the only one left in the Atlantic Division with an unblemished league record heading into today’s road game at Pittsburgh.

Barring another Tigers loss, State will still need to beat Clemson in its head-to-head matchup in Raleigh on Nov. 4. But a win in that game would essentially give the Wolfpack a two-game cushion on the defending national champions because of tiebreakers.

That is, assuming it takes care of its own business between now and then. That’s not always a given when it comes to State, which has a history of losing games it has no business losing. So far, this season, the Wolfpack has managed to avoid the kind of pitfalls that have traditionally haunted it. Today’s matchup with the 2-4 Panthers in a half-empty NFL stadium will be yet another test and has the potential to be a dangerous one if State doesn’t show up ready to play.

2. Will UNC get a boost from Friday’s favorable NCAA ruling?

Coach Larry Fedora and his players can finally breathe a major sigh of relief now that the cloud of further NCAA sanctions has finally been lifted from them. But that’s the least of their more immediate worries as they try to break a five-game home losing streak at Kenan Stadium today against Virginia.

The Tar Heels are an injury-riddled bunch whose confidence is wavering after two straight lopsided losses in which their once-potent offense has mustered a combined total of just 17 points.

UNC was once looking forward to its annual meeting with the Cavaliers as an opportunity to get back on the winning track and perhaps turn its season around while there’s still something left to salvage. It was a logical assumption, considering that the Tar Heels have won seven straight in the series and UVA hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011.

But these aren’t those same old Cavaliers. Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall has his team at 4-1 with an impressive road win at Boise State on its resume, a formidable defense led by All-American safety Quin Blanding and a quarterback in Kurt Benkert who is finally living up to the promise he showed before transferring from East Carolina.

Whether the inspiration comes from the NCAA or within, UNC will need an inspired effort today to have a chance in this one.

3. Can Duke get back on track against struggling Florida State?

Florida State would seem to be the worst possible opponent for the Blue Devils to be playing, coming off two straight losses and an offense that — while not as stagnant as UNC’s — has sputtered since getting off to a promising 4-0 start. Duke has lost all 19 of its previous meetings with the Seminoles and have yet to come within 19 points in any of those games.

But if ever there was a good time to play FSU, now is it.

The Seminoles have fallen from their top 10 preseason ranking all the way out of the polls after a 1-4 start that has been complicated by a rash of injuries, the most damaging a season-ender to quarterback Deondre Francois. With freshman replacement James Blackman still learning the ropes, FSU ranks just 118th nationally in scoring offense at a hair over 18 points per game. Even with its own recent offensive woes, this is a very winnable game for Duke if its defense — which stands No. 3 nationally with 10 interceptions — can pressure Blackman into making mistakes as NC State, Wake Forest and Miami have in previous weeks.

4. How big a number will Central Florida put up on ECU’s defenseless defense?

The answer is, most likely, however many points the 22nd-ranked Knights’ coach Scott Frost decides to let his offense score, because it’s almost a certainty that the Pirates — even with the addition of newly hired “defensive analyst” John Gutekunst — will be powerless to stop them.

Consider the numbers.

UCF leads the nation in scoring offense at 47.5 points per game while getting off to a 4-0 start. It has a quarterback in sophomore McKenzie Milton who ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency and is averaging 339.3 yards per game in total offense, a wide receiver in Tre’Quan Smith who already has seven touchdowns this season and a game-breaking running back in Andre Killins Jr., who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against ECU last season.

Contrast that with a Pirates defense that is ranked dead last in the FBS in scoring defense at 47.8 points allowed and total defense at 599.5 yards allowed. It’s a unit that got lit up for 523 yards and 34 points last week to a Temple team that came into the game averaging just 16 points per game. Needless to say, today’s game isn’t a favorable matchup for coach Scottie Montgomery’s team.

5. Can Appalachian State avoid having its Sun Belt title hopes exiled to Moscow?

Like NC State, the Mountaineers got a break when the most serious challenger to their conference championship hopes lost to a lesser opponent. In this case, Troy’s loss to South Alabama earlier in the week is even bigger since App State isn’t scheduled play the Trojans in the regular season.

The Mountaineers, however, can’t afford to take a deep breath now that they hold their Sun Belt destiny in their own hands. They’ll have to travel across three time zones to get to Moscow — Idaho, not Russia — and face an unusual environment playing indoors in the Vandals’ domed stadium. App State is also coming off a spotty performance at home last week, in which it needed six interceptions and two fourth quarter comebacks to survive on homecoming against New Mexico State.

The good news for coach Scott Satterfield and his players is that, coming from the mountainous regions of Western North Carolina, they shouldn’t have a problem adjusting to the altitude of the Rockies. It will also help that Idaho comes into today’s game with a 2-3 record and losses to Western Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette,

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.