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

NC State coach Dave Doeren and Wolfpack fans hope they have reason to celebrate this afternoon (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

The final week of the college football season is upon us and you know what that means: Be careful walking under windows, because a lot of records are going to be thrown out of them today.

In all seriousness, there are plenty of rivalry games on the schedule that hold much more meaning than bowl bids, winning seasons and championship implications. And yes, in the case of the annual clash between North Carolina and NC State, a recent history of upsets and road victories suggests that those records really can be thrown out the window.

So as we wait to see how it all plays out and who gets to have bragging rights for the next 365 days, here are five questions about today’s games to think about and consider:  

1. How worried should NC State fans be?

Wolfpack Nation has been worried about today’s game for a while now. It’s simply in its DNA. But given recent events, the passionate folks in red and white have every reason to feel at least a little nervous.

Six weeks ago, when their team was 6-1 and the Tar Heels were in the midst of a free fall to oblivion, State fans were dreaming about how big of a number their team might be able to put up on its hated rival. But now, with the Wolfpack having lost three of four — including last week’s heart-wrenching result at Wake Forest — and UNC coming off two straight victories, the dynamic has changed considerably.

Adding to the intrigue of the matchup is the fact that the road team has won each of the past four games. And starting with the now famous (or infamous, depending on your allegiance) Gio Bernard game in 2012, the underdog has won more times than not.

All that having been said, State is the better, deeper and healthier team right now. If coach Dave Doeren’s team can get off to a solid start, stick to its game plan, execute without turning the ball over and take advantage of its playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Wolfpack should be able to calm a lot of nerves by the end of the day.

2. Can emotion and momentum overcome two more key injuries for UNC?

To the Tar Heels’ credit, they never resigned themselves to the inevitable and resorted to going through the motions once a winning record and bowl bid went out the window. They have kept playing hard and, despite an unprecedented number of injuries to key players, managed to win two straight to help salvage a little pride.

They can salvage even more pride and create some momentum going forward into 2018 if they can go into Carter-Finley Stadium and help put a damper on their rival’s season this afternoon. In order to do that, they’ll have to overcome two more potentially devastating personnel losses.

Linebackers Cole Holcomb and Cayson Collins aren’t just their team’s two leading tacklers on the season, they’ve also been the glue that has held UNC’s defense together and helped lead the improvement that has transformed the unit from one of the worst in the country into a competitive unit. Collins, a senior who has 83 tackles, won’t be in uniform today while Holcomb, a junior with 93 stops, is listed as questionable. Their absence — or in Holcomb’s case, limited effectiveness — will make it a lot more difficult to keep all of State’s offensive weapons in check. But then, a little momentum and a lot of emotion can go a long way in a rivalry game and if nothing else, the Tar Heels do have that going for them.

3. How will Wake Forest handle being a favorite?

With the exception of nonconference games against Presbyterian, Utah State and perhaps Appalachian State, the Deacons have been an underdog in every game they’ve played this season. Now that they’ve piled up seven wins — equalling last year’s total — and beaten in-state rival NC State, coach Dave Clawson and his team head into today’s regular season finale against Duke at BB&T Field as a solid 11-point favorite.

That’s not a fluke, considering the way Wake has been putting points on the scoreboard lately. But the question is, will the Deacons continue to keep the hammer down or will they get caught reading their press clippings now that things are going good — especially against an in-state rival that still needs a win to ensure bowl eligibility?

Wake should be able to take care of business and guarantee themselves a favorable postseason destination (in other words, anywhere other than Shreveport or El Paso). Then again, remember what happened the last time the Deacons played as a favorite back on Sept. 23 in Boone. They won, but struggled mightily in doing so, needing to block a last-second field goal attempt to secure a one-point victory.   

4. Is Duke playing with house money?   

As previously mentioned, the Blue Devils need to win at Wake today to get to the six-win mark and punch their ticket to the postseason. But while there will be a sense of urgency to take the guesswork out of the equation, coach David Cutcliffe’s team has a reasonable shot of getting to a bowl even with a loss.

It’s because Duke’s Academic Progress Rate ranks among the highest in college football. That’s significant because APR is the criteria that will be used to determine which five-win teams are selected to play in the postseason should there not be enough six-win teams to fill all 78 available bowl slots.

There are currently 70 teams with at least six wins in the FBS. As encouraging as that is, the Blue Devils would just as soon take care of business on their own by becoming one of those six-win teams. In order to do that, quarterback Daniel Jones and his teammates will have to put together another strong effort like the one they gave in outscoring Georgia Tech 23-0 in the second half last week on the way to a 43-20 victory that ended a six-game losing streak.

5. Can Appalachian State keep pace atop the crowded Sun Belt Conference standings

The Sun Belt likes to use the hashtag #funbelt to describe its football competition and it certainly has lived up to that reputation this season.

That is, unless you happen to be one of the four teams tied for the league lead with two games remaining in the regular season (because there’s no conference championship game, the schedule extends through next week).

Troy has already won this weekend, beating Texas State 62-9 on Thursday, so both the Mountaineers and today’s opponent Georgia State both need a victory to keep pace. Arkansas State is the other 5-1 Sun Belt team in the mix.

Since Arkansas State and Troy meet each other next Saturday and App State didn’t play either team, a win in Atlanta today would give the Mountaineers the inside track to a share of the conference championship for the second straight season heading into its home finale against Louisiana-Lafayette.

The good news for App State is that it finally seemed to snap out of the funk that led to a two-game losing streak and helped create all this Fun Belt chaos in the first place with a solid 27-6 win against Georgia Southern last Saturday.

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.