Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Duke quarterback Quentin Harris will get his toughest test yet in relief of injured starter Daniel Jones on Saturday against Virginia Tech ((Jim Young / AP Photo)

  It’s been three weeks now since Florence tore through our state, affecting the lives of so many people on and around the coast.

  Thursday night, North Carolina was hit with a different kind of Hurricane damage. This time it happened on the football field, as Miami ravaged UNC 47-10.

  The Tar Heels actually inflicted most of the misfortune they suffered upon themselves by turning the ball over six times, including three that went for Hurricanes touchdowns. It was a performance that got the football weekend off to a forgettable start.

 The good news is that things have the potential to pick up on Saturday with several pivotal matchups on the schedule. So as we wait for NC State, Duke and Appalachian State to play their conference openers, East Carolina to take on giant killer Old Dominion and several other games to be played around the state, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, How worried should NC State be about defending Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins?

 The Wolfpack’s rebuilt defense has performed well so far this season, leading the ACC with an average of just 13.3 points allowed through the first three games. But coach Dave Doeren’s team has yet to face an offense the likes of which it will see against Virginia at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.

  It’s not that the Cavaliers are all that explosive, though they are putting up 32.5 points and 434 yards per game and are coming off a 27-3 manhandling of Louisville. It’s that their dual threat quarterback Bryce Perkins is the kind of talent that can singlehandedly break down a defense and wreak havoc with both his legs and his arm. His presence and the attention defenses have to pay him has opened things up for running back Jordan Ellis to average better than 110 yards per game and made Olamide Zaccheaus, the ACC’s active leader in receptions, even more dangerous.

  Another thing UVa does well is keep the ball away from opposing offenses. The Cavaliers rank second in time of possession, meaning that NC State quarterback Ryan Finley and his potent offense are going to have to make the most of their opportunities, because they might get fewer chances with the ball than usual.

2, Is Duke a legitimate Coastal Division contender?

  The Blue Devils are off to a 4-0 start and are ranked 22nd in the nation, according to this week’s AP poll. They’re the only team in the FBC with two road wins against Power 5 opponents. And yet, there’s still questions about how good they really are. We’ll find out Saturday when they take on a suddenly wounded Virginia Tech team at Wallace Wade Stadium.

  The Hokies figured to be one of the teams to beat in the Coastal and were off to a strong start until getting stunned by 29-point underdog Old Dominion last week. Not only did Tech lose the game, but even worse, they lost starting quarterback for an extended period of time with a broken bone in his leg. Then, after the game, the team’s leading pass rusher, Trevon Hill, was dismissed from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

  Tech’s misfortune has left the door wide open for a Duke team that ranks right behind NC State in scoring defense in the ACC at 15.3 points allowed per game. Offensively, Quentin Harris is starting to get more and more comfortable in relief of injured starter Daniel Jones. His running ability has the potential to give the Hokies trouble, given Jones’ success running the ball against them last year.

  With a win, the Blue Devils would replace the Hokies as the top challenger to Miami in the Coastal Division. “This,” coach David Cutcliffe said earlier this week, “is where you see what kind of program you’ve got.”

3,  How much of an effect, if any, will the firing of coordinator Jay Sawvel have on Wake Forest’s defense?

 After watching his team give up 41 points on six touchdowns of 27 yards or longer against Boston College, Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson attempted to improve his defense’s performance by simplifying its scheme.

 That, however, only made things worse.

 So after watching his team give up 56 points in an embarrassing home loss to Notre Dame last Saturday, Clawson decided to make an even more dramatic change by firing defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel.

  The question now is whether the move will do anything to help a defense that ranks dead last in the ACC in points and yards allowed and has already been torched for nine plays of 35 yards or longer. One thing that will help bring about any potential improvement is this week’s opponent, Rice.

  The Owls have lost three straight since having to come from behind to pull out a win in their season opener against Prairie View A&M. And while they have shown at least some offensive proficiency, scoring 22 or more points in each of their games, their defense has allowed 40 or more points in each of their three losses. That means the Deacons might not have to be that much better on defense to get back on the winning track.

4, Could ECU have picked a worse time to play Old Dominion?

  This figured to be a game in which the Pirates could build off their strong defensive performance at South Florida last week and pick up a badly needed win against a weak opponent. The Monarchs, after all, were blown out by Liberty and lost to a Charlotte team that could only muster one win all last season.

  Then came last week ODU’s stunning upset of Virginia Tech. Led by backup quarterback Blake LaRussa, who came off the bench to throw for 495 yards and four touchdowns to earn national Offensive Player of the Week honors — against a Bud Foster defense, no less — ODU is suddenly a much more dangerous team than coach Scottie Montgomery’s team anticipated. The fact that ECU’s starting quarterback Reid Herring is bothered by an ankle injury that limited his effectiveness during the second half of last week’s 20-13 loss only complicates matters.

  There’s a good chance the Monarchs aren’t as good as they looked last week and that win against the Hokies was nothing more than a fluke. If nothing else, at least the Pirates won’t take them lightly now.

5, How many points will Appalachian State’s explosive offense put up this week?

  Okay, so the Mountaineers probably won’t put up another 70-burger like they did last week on Gardner-Webb when they play their Sun Belt Conference opener against South Alabama. But there’s a good chance they’ll still give the scoreboard at Kidd Brewer Stadium a good workout.

  This is a team that scored 38 points on Penn State in its opening game and is averaging better than 525 yards so far this season. That doesn’t bode well for a US defense that has given up 50 or more points twice already.

  App State has traditionally had a strong offense under coach Scott Satterfield, a former quarterback for the Mountaineers. It averaged better than 35 points in winning nine games a year ago. But with four-year starting quarterback Taylor Lamb having graduated, there figured to be at least some dropoff. That hasn’t happened, thanks to the play of Lamb’s replacement Zac Thomas, who has completed 74 percent of passes through his first three starts for 750 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception.

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