Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Wins have been as out of reach for UNC over the past two weeks as this pass against Syracuse (Scott Schild/The Post-Standard via AP)

The ACC held its Operation Basketball media day in Charlotte on Wednesday and the timing couldn’t have been better.

It came on the heels of a weekend in which all four of the league’s North Carolina-based football teams lost their games. To make matters worse, East Carolina and Charlotte also got beat last Saturday. And Appalachian State, coming off the high of being ranked for the first time in the program’s short FBS history, not only lost to Georgia Southern but also lost star quarterback Zac Thomas to injury.

As depressing as the situation on the gridiron might be right now, the season must go on. There are still games to play, starting Saturday.

So while we wait for kickoff — not to mention the start of the rapidly approaching basketball season — here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. How will NC State bounce back from last week’s disappointment at Clemson?

Players and coaches will often tell you that if they’re going to lose, it’s better to get beaten soundly than lose in heartbreaking fashion. Several members of the Wolfpack actually said it following last week’s 41-7 beatdown at the hands of the second-ranked Tigers.

But while the loss stung a lot less than State’s two previous down-to-the-wire defeats against Clemson, the way it lost at Death Valley has presented coach Dave Doeren with some unexpected challenges heading into another road game at Syracuse this Saturday. Not only does he have to work at restoring his team’s once-soaring confidence, but he and his staff must also correct the many uncharacteristic mistakes their team made on both sides of the ball.

Or as Doeren put it earlier in the week, the Wolfpack needs to remember its identity and get back to the way it played during the first five games of the season.

And quickly.  Although the team wearing Orange this week won’t be as intimidating as the one the Wolfpack faced in its last game, Syracuse is anything but a pushover. Syracuse took Clemson to the wire earlier this season and ranks second in the ACC in scoring at 39.6 points per game. In order to turn things around quickly and get back on the winning track, State will have to avoid turnovers, do a better job of protecting quarterback Ryan Finley and catching 50-50 balls and avoid giving up big plays. As well has having a short memory.

2. Can UNC stop shooting itself in the foot long enough to finally win a close game?

The Tar Heels are mired in the ACC Coastal cellar at 1-5 overall (1-3 in the ACC), but if running back Michael Carter doesn’t fumble at the goal line against Virginia Tech and wide open tight end Carl Tucker catches a pass on third down late in regulation at Syracuse last week, UNC is 3-3 overall, 3-1 in the conference and tied for first place in the decision.

That’s a tough pill for any team to swallow, but the fact is coach Larry Fedora’s team should never have been in a position to lose games at the end or in double overtime. Consider that the Tar Heels have gained more than 1,000 yards over the past two games and yet, have just three touchdowns to show for it. They rank 102nd nationally in red zone efficiency. That inability to get into the end zone has cost them dearly. But they’ll get another chance to improve on that performance this Saturday in Charlottesville.

Scott Stadium has actually been a kind place for UNC in recent years. They’ve won their last four trips there in “The South’s Oldest Rivalry,” including a 35-14 victory in 2016. This UVa team is different from those other four, though. After last week’s win at Duke and a loss by front-runner Virginia Tech to Georgia Tech on Thursday, the Cavaliers suddenly hold their division championship fate in their own hands. They’ll be a tough team to beat … especially if the Tar Heels continue their habit of beating themselves.

3. Can Duke get its offense kick started again?

The Blue Devils started the season like gangbusters, averaging 37.5 points over their first four games — all wins. Since then, they’ve managed just 18.7 points in the three games since. And that stat was helped by a rash of Georgia Tech turnovers that led to easy points in Duke’s only win during that stretch.

Coach David Cutcliffe’s team ranks last in the ACC in total offense in conference games at just 317 yards per outing. Some of that can be traced to loss of leading rusher Brittain Brown and quarterback Daniel Jones not being the same since coming back from an injury of his own. The Blue Devils will need to get their act together against a Pittsburgh team that has won seven of the last eight meetings between the teams or hope their defense can carry it against an opponent that is as physical as any in the ACC.

4. Is Louisville the cure for what’s been ailing Wake Forest since the start of the conference schedule?

The Deacons are 0-3 in the ACC and haven’t been close in their last two losses against Clemson and Florida State. The good news is that this week’s opponent, Louisville, has been even worse than they’ve been this season. The Cardinals have been a virtual dumpster fire while going 2-5 overall (0-4 ACC) in what is starting to look like Bobby Petrino’s swansong.

Louisville ranks dead last in the conference in scoring offense at 20.4 points per game and 12th in scoring defense at 33.4 points per game allowed. It has been especially vulnerable to the run, giving up an average 268.2 yards on the ground over its last four games. So expect Wake running backs Matt Colburn and Cade Carney to get a lot of work on Saturday.

There’s also a good chance the Cardinals will have trouble keeping Greg Dortch in check, since the star wide receiver scored four touchdowns against them last year before getting hurt in a 42-32 Deacons win. There’s nothing coach Dave Clawson and his players would like more than to dish out a little misfortune to Petrino and Louisville after the Cardinals did the same to them as part of the now infamous Wakeyleaks scandal.

5. How much longer until the start of basketball season?

Less than two weeks now. Tuesday, Nov. 6 might be Election Day for most people around the country, but for sports fans in our state — especially fans of the four ACC schools — it’s the day college hoop teams return to the hardwood for games that count.

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