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

Notre Dame's Deon McIntosh pulls away from UNC's Myles Dorn for a long touchdown run in a game earlier this season (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time this season, a college football Saturday actually feels like a college football Saturday.

That chill in the air means that things are getting ready to start heating up — regardless of whether a team is lining itself up for a championship run, a bowl bid, a spot in the FCS playoff or just trying to win a game.

As we wait to see how things work out while enjoying the perfect fall weather, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:  

1. Can UNC prevent a catastrophe by preventing “catastrophic” plays in Blacksburg ?

The Tar Heels’ defense has improved dramatically since getting off to a disastrous start, allowing just 27 points and 410 yards over its last five games, but it still hasn’t been good enough to win because of their propensity for giving up big plays. Or, as coach Larry Fedora likes to call them, “catastrophic plays.”

UNC has allowed at least one of them in every game this season, one reason why its record stands at an unsightly 1-6 headed into today’s ACC Coastal showdown with Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels have been burned for eight plays of 60 yards or more this season, the most of any team in the country. Their five plays of 70 yards or more ranks second nationally.

The Hokies have a talented young quarterback in Josh Jackson and a big play wide receiver in Cam Phillips, along with a running back — Travon McMillian — that has given UNC trouble in the past. The Tar Heels are going to have to avoid their usual defensive catastrophes today to have any shot at winning their second straight at Lane Stadium. And even then there’s no guarantee, thanks to an offense that has mustered only 28 points over the last three games.

2. Is Wake Forest ready to get back on track now that it’s done with the most difficult part of its schedule?

The Deacons’ hot start was cooled by back-to-back losses, but that might have more to do with their schedule than their performance on the field. Coach Dave Clawson’s team acquitted itself well in back-to-back games against Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State and Clemson, but ended up with nothing to show for it other than two conference losses.

Now, after a week off to rest and recover, Wake returns to action at Georgia Tech looking to regain some of its early momentum. The game is hardly a gimme, especially since it’s on the road against an opponent with a potent, unique offense whose only two losses have come in double overtime and the final play of regulation.

At the same time, the Deacons will have the benefit of an extra week to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ triple option attack and a healthy John Wolford back at quarterback after missing the Clemson game with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. A win today would go a long way toward getting Wake back to the postseason and improving on last year’s six-win regular season.

3. How important is today’s game against Pittsburgh to Duke’s bowl chances?

Like Wake, the Blue Devils need two more wins to get back to a bowl after missing out last season. It’s hard to believe that coach David Cutcliffe’s team is in such a position considering how good it looked in getting off to a 4-0 start. But it has fallen upon hard times — especially on offense — over the past three games, all losses.

Although Duke still has five more tries to get those two more wins, its remaining schedule makes today’s game against Pittsburgh a potential key to its postseason chances considering. The Blue Devils have only one more home game after today’s ACC Coastal showdown with Pittsburgh and of the other three remaining games — including conference matchups against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Wake — they figure to be favored in only one, at Army on Nov. 11. Pittsburgh is struggling at 2-5 (0-3 ACC) and is playing a young backup quarterback. It’s an opportunity for a victory Duke can’t afford to waste.

4. Which is worse, ECU’s defense or BYU’s offense?

For the second time this season, the Pirates face a “something’s gotta give” scenario when they take on nonconference foe BYU in a homecoming game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ECU’s defense ranks last in the country and is on record pace by allowing averages of 50 points and 600 yards per game. The Cougars’ offense, on the other hands\, ranks 128th out of 129 FBS teams with an average of just 11.4 points per game.

If ever there was a team against which the Pirates’ defense can finally do something positive, this is it.

Then again, that’s the same thing we were saying a few weeks ago when ECU played American Athletic Conference rival Temple.

The Owls came into that game averaging just 16 points per game, having scored more than 20 points only once in four previous games. But the Pirates helped them get healthy by allowing more than 500 yards and a season-high 34 points — including 24 in the second quarter alone — in yet another lopsided loss. Today, the moveable object gets another shot at the stoppable force, hoping for a better result with Scottie Montgomery’s future as ECU coach potentially on the line.

5. Is today’s game against UAB Charlotte’s last best chance at avoiding a winless season?

The 49ers have come close a few times this season, including a one-point loss at Florida Atlantic on Sept. 30, but are still looking to break into the win column for the first time. Today’s game against UAB figured to be a layup at one point, since the Blazers are in their first season back after their school’s administration shut down the program in 2014. But thanks to the return of coach Bill Clark and 15 players from the program’s previous incarnation, UAB has bounced back well by going 4-2 in its first six games.

Charlotte, meanwhile, should get a boost from the return of quarterback Hasaan Klugh, who missed last week’s loss to Western Kentucky with an illness. But even then, the 49ers’ offense is still averaging just 13 points per game in its seven losses. Charlotte’s next two opponents have sub-.500 records, but with time running out, coach Brad Lambert’s team can’t afford to waste too many more chances to finally put a notch into the win column.

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.