We’ve reached the penultimate Saturday of the college football regular season and while the start of basketball season has taken some of the attention away from the gridiron, there are still some significant games to be played in the Old North State today.
NC State and Wake Forest will battle in Winston-Salem for a chance at calling themselves a state champion, as well as improving their bowl prospects. Duke, meanwhile, will be playing for its postseason survival while ECU will be playing its final home game, perhaps with its coach’s job on the line.
And then there’s the Aggie-Eagle Classic in Greensboro, with NC A&T looking to close out its first ever 11-0 season while rival NC Central will look to win its fourth straight in the series.
As we wait to see how all those storylines and others play out, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:
1. Can NC State prevent Wake Forest from putting up another basketball score?
The Deacons certainly turned some heads by rolling up 64 points and 734 total yards in their win against Syracuse last week. While those numbers were eye-popping, they came against a defense that will never be confused with the feared Steel Curtain of Pittsburgh Steelers fame. The Orange ranks just 12th in the ACC in scoring defense.
But the fact is that John Wolford, Matt Colburn and the rest of Wake’s vastly improved offensive arsenal have quietly been putting up big numbers all season. The Deacons have scored 35 points or more in each of their past three games — against Louisville and Notre Dame prior to the Syracuse outburst — and are second in the ACC behind only Clemson in scoring defense.
Although State has had its problems stopping the run recently, giving up 230 or more yards on the ground in each of its last three games, Wake’s high-powered attack will likely have to work a lot harder for those points today against the likes of Bradley Chubb, Kentavius Street, Darian Roseboro, Justin Jones and B.J. Hill.
2. Can Wake Forest avoid another big early deficit against NC State?
The old saying goes that you can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it, and that applies to the two most recent games played between the Deacons and Wolfpack. Over those two games, Wake has dug itself into a combined deficit of 45-0 after the opening 15 minutes and was never able to recover.
The Deacons outscored the Wolfpack 17-7 over the final three quarters in 2015, the last time the game was played in Winston-Salem, but never had a chance after falling behind 28-0 in the first period. Last year, Wake spotted State a 17-0 head start on the way to a 33-16 defeat. Though this year’s Deacons have shown a propensity for being a second half come-from-behind team, as they were last Saturday in rallying from a two-touchdown deficit at Syracuse, they don’t want to dig themselves a hole too deep to climb out.
3. Will UNC be overconfident today against an FCS opponent?
It’s hard to imagine a 2-8 team that just lost six straight getting caught being too cocky against any opponent, but that’s a real possibility today when the Tar Heels host Western Carolina at Kenan Stadium. This, after all, was the game everyone was targeting as their next best chance to win a game before breaking through a week early with their 34-31 victory at Pittsburgh last Thursday night.
With Nathan Elliott appearing to have solidified the quarterback position, the offensive line playing better and a defense that has improved drastically since the thrashing it took at Virginia Tech, UNC should be a heavy favorite against the Catamounts, who got off to a strong start but have lost two of their last three to fall out of the national FCS rankings. But Western is good enough to pull off the upset in its first ever trip to Chapel Hill if the Tar Heels simply show up and go through the motions.
4. Will Duke’s schedule give it an advantage against Georgia Tech’s triple option?
Yes, the Blue Devils lost to Army last week for their sixth straight loss, putting them on the cusp of missing the postseason for the second straight year. But that game at West Point on Saturday could end up being their saving grace against ACC rival Georgia Tech today, because the Cadets run a similar triple option offense as do the Yellow Jackets. With a week off the previous Saturday, coach David Cutcliffe’s team will have no excuse for not being prepared to face Tech’s confounding run-oriented attack.
The Blue Devils should also be confident in that they’ve beaten the Yellow Jackets two of the past three years, losing last season’s meeting in Atlanta by only three points. On the downside, star linebacker Ben Humphreys won’t be playing because of a leg injury suffered at Army. Duke needs this win to remain in contention for bowl eligibility. There’s no more margin for error.
5. Is Scottie Montgomery coaching his final home game at ECU today against Cincinnati?
Decision time is coming for athletic director Jeff Compher. Has he seen enough growth out of his second-year coach and the Pirates to warrant bringing him back for a third year. Or is it time to pull the plug and start over again after a two-year stretch that — to this point — has produced only five wins. Today’s game against Cincinnati will likely be Montgomery’s last opportunity to make a strong case for retention.
Like ECU, the once-powerful Bearcats have fallen upon hard times under first-year coach Luke Fickell. They come into today’s game in Greenville just 3-7 with their only wins coming against Austin Peay, Miami of Ohio and a one-point squeaker against Tulane. If ever there was a chance for the Pirates to boost up their own resume and send both their fans and AD home feeling good on Senior Day, this is it. With only a road game at AAC West-leading Memphis left on the schedule after today, this is Montgomery’s last best chance to pick up a win before the decision on his future is made. If it hasn’t been made already.
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.