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

Joshua S. Kelly—X02835
NC State did everything but beat Clemson last season in Death Valley. The Wolfpack gets a chance to finish the job at home today (Joshua S. Kelly/USA Today Sports)

  North Carolina and Duke both have the week off, making it something of a slow Saturday for college football in the Old North State.

  But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one.

  All eyes — or at least most of them — will be on Carter-Finley Stadium this afternoon when NC State takes on Clemson amid an electric atmosphere with the inside track to the ACC’s Atlantic Division championship on the line.

  As we wait for that showdown, along with several others in the state to kickoff, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:  

1, Has NC State’s moment finally arrived?

 You could say that the Wolfpack has been waiting a full year to get another shot at Clemson and rid itself of its traditional Atlantic Division albatross. In reality, though, it’s been 38 years since it has played a game of this much significance. Though a win won’t clinch State’s first ACC title since 1979, it all but ensure coach Dave Doeren’s team of a spot in the league’s championship game on Dec. 2 in Charlotte.

  The Wolfpack came agonizingly close to knocking off the defending national champion Tigers a year ago in Death Valley, losing in overtime after kicker Kyle Bambard missed a potential game-winning field goal on the final play of regulation. In order to have a shot at finishing the job in front of what what promises to be a festive home crowd today, State will have to hope the key players injured during last week’s nonconference loss at Notre Dame.

  Defensive linemen Josh Jones, Eurndraus Bryant and Darian Roseboro, and running back Nyheim Hines were all back at practice this week and are expected to be at or near full strength for today’s game. Their healthy return and the attention they command will help star pass rusher Bradley Chubb of getting into the Clemson backfield and making life difficult for quarterback Kelly Bryant.

  As important as those three defenders might be, the player whose contribution holds the biggest key to State’s success is running back Nyheim Hines. The Wolfpack’s offense came to a screeching halt after Hines went out with a sprained ankle on the opening possession last week and its normally balanced attack became one-dimensional without the threat of a ground game.

Hines is expected to be back for Saturday’s game. How effective he is will go a long way toward determining whether the 2017 season is a good one or a special one for Doeren and his team.

2, Is Wake Forest the one with the inside intel on its opponent today?

  Last week, the Deacons got some sweet revenge against a Louisville team that had famously been given advance knowledge of their playbook the previous season. This week, it’s coach Dave Clawson’s team that could potentially know what its opponent might do before it does it.

  No, Wake hasn’t been given Notre Dame’s playbook by a disgruntled former coach and radio analyst. But because its former defensive coordinator and longtime Clawson assistant Mike Elko is now calling the shots at the Irish’s defensive coordinator, the Deacons should have a pretty good idea of what his tendencies are and who kind of defenses Notre Dame might use in certain situations.

  The problem is that even with that knowledge, Wake figures to have a difficult time moving the ball against a big, physical Irish defense that has a knack for forcing turnovers. And it will be at a disadvantage of its own without its top playmaker Greg Dortch, who was lost for the season after undergoing abdominal surgery this week.

  Even if quarterback John Wolford and his offense do put some points on the board at Notre Dame Stadium, the Deacons’ defense is still going to have to find a way to slow the runaway truck that is running back Josh Adams — something nobody, including NC State’s top-rated defensive line — has been able to do yet this season.

3, Is ECU ready to take a another step forward after its homecoming win against BYU and a bye week or return to its bad old habits?

  The Pirates eased some of the pressure on themselves and coach Scottie Montgomery with a 33-17 victory two weeks ago and have had a week off to heal some injuries and prepare for today’s trip to Houston.

  It’s a victory that couldn’t help but build confidence, especially among a defense that is still statistically the worst in the nation. At the same time, it came against an offense that averages less than two touchdowns per game. The bar will be raised this week against an opponent that upset AAC frontrunner South Florida last week. But unlike the past few years under now-former coach Tom Herman, the Cougars are anything but an elite team.

  The question is, did that performance against BYU signal the start of a long road back to respectability for the Pirate or was it just a momentary rest stop on the fall to rock bottom?

  We’ll have a better idea later today.

4, Can Appalachian State get its mojo back and stay on top of the Sun Belt Conference standings?

  The Mountaineers have been living on the edge for a solid month now. But after staging fourth quarter rallies to pull out close victories the three previous weeks, they finally fell off the edge in an mystifying overtime loss to a UMass team that came into the game with only one previous victory this season.

  The good news for coach Scott Satterfield and his team is that the loss didn’t damage their chances at a second straight conference title. App State is one of only two unbeaten teams in the Sun Belt and figures to be a heavy favorite against a Louisiana-Monroe team that is 3-5 overall and 1-2 at home. The Mountaineers have won 24 of their last 26 road games in Sun Belt play and are 12-1 away from home overall during that stretch.

  That bodes well for App State, but only if it can find a way to shake off the doldrums that have prevented it from putting lesser teams like the Warhawks away in the past.

  1. Will NC A&T make history today?

  No team in NC A&T history has ever started a season with nine straight wins. That can change today as the undefeated and ninth-ranked Aggies take on MEAC rival Norfolk State with a chance to improve to 9-0.

  This game figures to be a slam dunk with coach Rod Broadway’s team coming off a bye week to prepare for an opponent it has beaten four straight times and is under .500 for the season at 3-5. But the Spartans are something of an enigma after ending NC Central’s 18-game MEAC winning streak two weeks ago before laying an egg in a loss to previously winless Savannah State last Saturday.

  The best start in school history isn’t the only thing on the line for A&T today. Quarterback Lamar Raynard needs only two more touchdown passes to set the school record for scoring passes in a season. He needs just 237 and 33 completions to enter the record books in those categories as well. Wide receiver Elijah Bell is just one catch away from the single-season school mark for catches while a win would be Broadway’s 51st with the Aggies, moving him into second place on the all-time school coaching list.

  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.