Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Duke football players and fan celebrate after defeating rival UNC in 2016 (North State Journal file photo)

  Rivalry week Part 1 among the state’s ACC school got off to a surprising and dramatic start Thursday night with Wake Forest’s late rally to beat NC State in Raleigh. Today, another underdog will try to show some unexpected bite when North Carolina travels to Duke in the annual battle for the Victory Bell.

  As we wait for that and several other games of consequence around the Old North State to begin on this crisp November afternoon, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, What exactly is the Victory Bell?

  As rivalry trophies go, the Victory Bell is one of the best, especially now that it changes hands occasionally after years of UNC dominance.

  Originated by a pair of cheerleaders, UNC’s Norman Spear and Duke’s Loring Jones, the bell was obtained from an old railroad train and has been awarded to the winner of the game between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils every year since 1948.

  The cart on which it is mounted is traditionally painted the shade of blue belonging to the previous year’s winner. But because of an incident in 2014 in which UNC’s players did $27,000 in damage to Duke’s visitors locker room and synthetic practice field at Wallace Wade Stadium,  a new paint scheme featuring a half-and-half design with both teams’ colors and logo on it was unveiled. That didn’t go over well and the decision was eventually reversed.

  The bell has been Duke’s dark blue for the past two seasons.

2, Is it just coachspeak or does Duke’s David Cutcliffe really think UNC is a dangerous opponent?

  This is what Cutcliffe had to say about the Tar Heels earlier this week: “Watching tape of this team and previous North Carolina teams, this is a well, well-coached football team, a talented football team that’s had some misfortune. But on tape they’re a good football team.”

  So is he right or is this simply a case of a coach buttering up a rival so as not to give the underdog any extra incentive to play hard against his team?

  The answer is probably a little of both.

  Cutcliffe is smart enough to know that it’s best to let a sleeping dog lie. But he also knows that despite its 1-7 record, UNC does still have plenty of weapons — especially offensively — to make life difficult for his Blue Devils.

  Running backs Michael Carter and Antonio Williams are both potential gamebreakers while Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Dez Newsome are among the fastest, most talented receivers in the ACC. The problem has been getting the ball to them all on a consistent basis.

  The Tar Heels have been close this season, finding ways to lose in the final minutes to both Techs and Syracuse. Had they been able to close each of those games out, they’d be sitting on the cusp of bowl eligibility. Even though they’re no longer in contention for the postseason, bringing home the Victory Bell would be a nice consolation prize. And they’re more than capable of doing if they can finally figure out how to play a full 60 minutes, instead self-destructing after 58.

3,  Is ECU finally on the verge of a breakthrough?

  It might not seem like it simply by looking at the results, but to watch the Pirates play this season, it’s obviously that they are vastly improved from coach Scottie Montgomery’s first two seasons. The question is: At what point does that improvement start translating into wins? It could happen today at Tulane against a team ECU has traditionally played well against, including last season in which it took the Green Wave into overtime before losing.

  The most tangible reason for hope has been the way the offense has looked in its two games with star freshman Holton Ahlers at quarterback. The youngster has thrown for better than 400 yards in each of those two games, doing so without committing a turnover while putting up 41 points in last week’s loss to Memphis.

  Defensively, the Pirates suffered a major setback against the Tigers by allowing multiple big plays while allowing 59 points. But overall, it has been much more competitive under first-year coordinator David Blackwell. ECU was especially vulnerable in the passing game last week, which makes Tulane a good opponent to face since it averages only 60 yards through the air per game in its run-oriented attack.

  At 2-6 (0-5 AAC) this is a game Montgomery desperately needs to win if he wants to stand any chance at keeping his job beyond this season.

4, Why is Appalachian State rooting so hard for Troy today?

  Obviously, the Mountaineers’ top priority today is winning their own game against Sun Belt West bottom feeder Texas State. But they will also have one eye focused on Statesboro, Ga., where current East frontrunners Georgia Southern and Troy will be going head-to-head for sole possession of the division lead.

  If Southern wins, App State’s chances for playing in the Sun Belt title game on Dec. 1 are all but over since the Eagles beat the Mountaineers back on Oct. 25 in a game that saw starting quarterback Zac Thomas sidelined with a concussion on the opening series. Because of the tiebreaker, Southern essentially holds a two-game lead. But if Troy wins, the door will once again be ajar for App State — which could then still potentially force a tie with Trojans by beating them in the final game of the regular season in Boone.

  That is, provided they take care of business against Georgia State in between.

5, Who has a better shot at bowl eligibility, Wake Forest or Charlotte?

  The Deacons certainly helped their cause Thursday with their stunning come-from-behind victory at NC State. But despite still having two chances remaining to get the one win needed to qualify for the postseason, coach Dave Clawson’s team is no shoo in.

  Those two remaining games are at home against Pittsburgh, which will likely be playing to wrap up the Coastal Division title and a date with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and in-state rival Duke on the road. Though difficult, both of those games are still eminently winnable, especially now that backup quarterback Jamie Newman has shown he is capable of throwing the ball downfield and leading his team to victory.

  If all else fails, he Deacons can still get into the postseason at 5-7 if their APR is high enough and there aren’t enough .500 or better teams to fill all the bowl spots.

  The scenario for the 49ers is quite as optimistic as they chase their first bowl bid in school history. At 4-5 overall, they need to win at least two of their final three games in order to gain bowl eligibility for the first time in school history.

  Today’s opponent, Marshall, is 5-3. Next week’s opponent Florida International is 6-3 and the final foe, on the road, is a Florida Atlantic could potentially be playing for its own bowl eligibility. Regardless of how things turn out, it’s already a successful season for coach Brad Lambert’s team, which has made significant progress to rebound from last year’s 1-11 disaster.

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