Five questions to ponder before kickoff


NC State quarterback Ryan Finley threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns against Marshall last season (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

  The flood waters have yet to recede, thousands across the Carolinas are still without power and the relief effort from Hurricane Florence are just getting started. But for the college football teams around our state, life gets back to normal on Saturday with the resumption of play following last week’s postponements and cancellations.

  It will be interesting to see how the interruption in the schedule affects things, either for the better or worse.

  No matter how things turn out, the games themselves should help serve as at least a momentary distraction from the hardships so many of our neighbors are feeling as they begin the difficult process of cleaning up and rebuilding.

  So as we wait for the games to begin, here are five questions about this weekend’s games to think about and consider:

1, Will the unexpected week off and the arrival of Pittsburgh be what UNC needs to kick start its season?

  It’s hard to say that anyone benefitted from the events of the past week. But if anyone did it’s the Tar Heels. Coach Larry Fedora’s team was staring an 0-3 start squarely in eye with Central Florida and the nation’s longest FBS winning streak coming to Chapel Hill. UNC might still be 0-3 once Saturday’s home opener is done. But in Pittsburgh, it stands a much better chance of breaking through and finally getting into the win column.

  The Tar Heels are 5-0 against the Panthers since Pitt joined the ACC. But then all five of those wins have come by a touchdown or less, meaning that the law of averages is bound to catch up with UNC eventually. Another thing the Tar Heels have going for them is that the time off allowed them an opportunity to step back, take their minds off football for a few days and start over fresh after two disappointing road performances at Cal and ECU.

  It can’t be understated how pivotal a game this is for UNC. To have any chance at all of getting to six wins and bowl eligibility — even with the addition of a replacement game down the road — the Tar Heels absolutely have to have this one. The math simply doesn’t add up without it.

2, How is NC State only a 5½-point favorite on the road against a non-Power 5 opponent?

  The folks in Vegas know more about things like point spreads than most of us, which is why they win exponentially more than they lose. Still, it’s hard to understand why they seem to have such little faith in coach Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack against Marshall.

  Granted, State hasn’t looked like a world beater in its first two games against inferior competition. It hasn’t been able to generate much in the way of a ground attack and it will be playing for the first time this season on the road. But James Madison is a better FCS opponent than most and the Wolfpack did make visible improvement in Week 2 against Georgia State. And it should have more than enough weapons, including the addition of transfer tight end Cary Angeline, to take care of business.

  Marshall is 2-0, but its wins have come against Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Kentucky. More relevant is the fact that the Thundering Herd is 3-9 against Power 5 teams since 2010, including a 37-20 loss at Carter-Finley Stadium last season and Ryan Finley, who threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in that game is still State’s quarterback.

  Perhaps the oddsmakers don’t know enough about the Wolfpack to have a lot of confidence in it yet. Either that or maybe they know something the rest of us don’t.

3,  Is Wake Forest ready to make a statement?

  After falling short in their ACC opener against Boston College, the Deacons have a chance to get back on the right track — and gain some national attention along the way — with a home game against Notre Dame. Even though it’s not a conference game, this matchup is a big deal for coach Dave Clawson’s program, as the expected sellout crowd might suggest.

  Although the Irish have the edge in tradition and exposure, there are numerous reasons why Wake could have an advantage when they meet for only the fifth time ever and second time in Winston-Salem.

  For one thing, the Deacons have had an extra two days off to rest and prepare after playing a weeknight game last Thursday. They will also add something of a secret weapon to their already plentiful offensive arsenal with the return of Kendall Hinton from suspension. Hinton will likely play several roles from wide receiver to kick returner to quarterback. With no idea how he’ll lineup and no film to help Notre Dame prepare, the athletic junior will provide Wake with an element of surprise.

  The Irish also figure to be a good matchup for the Deacons, especially since quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s struggles over the past two games — including a narrow escape against Vanderbilt last week — might make it difficult for the Irish to exploit Wake’s weakness in defending the downfield passing game. Conversely, the Deacons’ young quarterback Sam Hartman is coming off a game in which he looked like a true freshman for the first time. If the moment isn’t too big for him, Wake stands a great chance of beating a top 10 opponent for the first time since 1946.

4, How will ECU’s improved defense hold up in its first real test at South Florida?

  It cannot be understated how much of a difference new coordinator David Blackwell has already made on a Pirates defense that ranked dead last among FBS programs last season in both points and yards allowed per game.

  Through two games, ECU has allowed much more respectable averages of 332 yards and 23.5 points. Obviously there’s still room for improvement, but it’s a great start considering the alternative. But now, after shutting out UNC during the second half of its most recent game two weeks ago, the Pirates will get a chance to see exactly how far they’ve come and how much work they still have left to do in their American Athletic Conference opener at USF.

  The Bulls hung 41 points on ECU in Greenville last year and are averaging more than 500 yards per game in three wins this season.  

  Off all the teams that were affected by Florence last week, the Pirates had the biggest distraction with which to deal. Although Greenville was spared the worst of the storm, they spent the week bunkered down in Orlando. They spent the week there this week to prepare for USF Coach Scottie Montgomery called the experience “a good team building situation.” Only time will tell how that translates into the team’s performance on the field. Especially on defense.

5, Can Duke make it through a game without an important player getting injured?

  The Blue Devils are off to a promising 3-0 start and are the only team in college football this season to have two wins on the road against FBS opponents. That success, however, has come with a cost. Coach David Cutcliffe’s team has already lost seven starters to injuries, including quarterback Daniel Jones and top defensive back Mark Gilbert.

  The good news is that this week’s opponent, FCS neighbor NC Central, shouldn’t pose much of a threat as far as the final score is concerned. Barring a rash of turnovers or an out-of-body experience by the Eagles, Duke should win this game handily. The key for the Blue Devils building up a big enough lead early enough to get its starters off the field and into the sidelines in one piece so that they’ll all be available for the start of the ACC schedule next week..

  That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games! And stay cool!!