Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Bobby Petrino's stormy tenure at Louisville ended when he was fired after last week's loss to Syracusd (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

  The football season in the Old North State is winding down with a whimper, not a bang. But that doesn’t mean the remaining games are devoid of significance.

  Appalachian State is still in contention for its division championship and home field advantage in the Sun Belt Conference championship game. NC State can still reach its goal of a 10-win season and both Wake Forest and Charlotte are playing to earn bowl eligibility while North Carolina and East Carolina are possibly playing to save their coach’s jobs.

  As we wait to see how it all plays out, for better or for worse, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, What effect, if any, will Bobby Petrino’s firing have on NC State’s game at Louisville?

  The Cardinals figured to be the perfect remedy for what ails the Wolfpack after last Thursday’s crushing loss to Wake Forest. Winless in the ACC, allowing an average of 48.7 points during its current seven-game losing streak and giving up over 300 yards per game on the ground — with over half of its roster requesting transfer applications — Louisville looked like a team that couldn’t wait for the season to be over.

  That might still be the case. But now that divisive coach Bobby Petrino is gone, having been fired after last week’s loss to Syracuse and replaced on an interim basis by safeties coach Lorenzo Ward, the attitude among the players has become much more positive Or as Jake Lourim wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this week: “It would be difficult to quantify how drastically the vibe around the football facility transformed in the course of 24 hours.”

  Whether that translates into better performance, especially on defense, is a wild card that won’t be known until the game begins. Presumably, State should still handle the Cardinals easily. But the mystery of how Louisville will react to a coaching change it clearly was happy to see makes this a more dangerous game than it was a few days ago.

2, Has UNC hit rock bottom?

 Maybe, maybe not. That will depend on what happens against Western Carolina. A Tar Heel loss to an in-state FCS school would be the sour cherry on top of a truly miserable year marred by suspensions, agonizingly close defeats and injuries to three different quarterbacks.

  Though a win won’t salvage what is already a lost season or even save coach Larry Fedora’s job, it would at least give the players and coaches something to feel good about as they begin the process of regrouping for 2019.

  The good news for UNC, which has lost six straight, is that the Catamounts come into Chapel Hill riding a seven-game skid of their own. And under similar circumstances a year ago, against a much better Western team, the Tar Heels rolled to a 65-10 victory. As long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot and are able to contain the Catamounts’ talented dual threat quarterback Tyrie Adams, who rushed for 167 yards and passed for 229 a week ago in a close loss to Wofford, this will be an opportunity for Fedora and his players take out at least a little of their pent up frustration on a lesser opponent.

3,  Can Wake Forest build on its impressive performance at NC State and throw the Coastal Division back into chaos?

  If not for Louisville, the Deacons would rank last in the ACC in defense with an average of 35.8 points per game allowed. But unlike the Cardinals, coach Dave Clawson’s team showed some signs of life and rose to the occasion in the face of adversity last Thursday with a winning performance at NC State.

  Although backup quarterback Jamie Newman got most of the attention for engineering the fourth quarter rally that produced the 27-23 victory, it was Wake’s much-maligned defense that made the comeback possible by limiting the Wolfpack to just 47 yards on the ground and forcing State to kick field goals instead of giving up touchdowns.

  It’s going to take a similar effort to stay in the game against a Pittsburgh team that is much more proficient at running the ball. The Panthers are averaging 256.9 rushing yards per game and feature two of the ACC’s top five — Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall — in that category.

  While the Deacons will be playing to earn bowl eligibility, they also have an opportunity to add some intrigue to the Coastal Division race heading into the final full week of the regular season. Pitt would clinch the division title with a victory. A loss, however, would allow Virginia to sneak back into the race with one game remaining for each team.

  Of note, this is the first ever meeting between the Deacons and Panthers at ACC rivals. They are the last two teams to play on another for the first time since the conference expanded to its current 14-team alignment.

4, What is the best case scenario for Duke against Clemson?

  Every team goes into every game it plays believing that it has a chance of winning. And it would be unwise to sell a team coached by David Cutcliffe short under any circumstance. But let’s face it, the Blue Devils are heading into a bright orange buzzsaw when they show up at Death Valley for the Tigers’ Senior Day.

  Emotion aside, Duke will be matched up against a bigger, deeper, more physical opponent that appears destined for yet another shot at Alabama in the upcoming College Football Playoff. Not only will the Blue Devils’ defense have its hands full trying to contain freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and a Clemson offense scoring an average of 45.7 points per game, but their own star passer Daniel Jones will be hard-pressed to put up a big enough number to win against a Tiger squad that hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in a game since September.

  Although it will be trying to win the game on the scoreboard, Duke can declare victory if it can return home to Durham with all its key players healthy. That hasn’t happened a lot this season, In just the last week, the Blue Devils lost defensive tackle Ben Frye and safety Dylan Singletary, bringing to 16 the number of players with starting experience to miss at least one game because of injury this season.

5, Is the UConn game an absolute must win for Scottie Montgomery at ECU?

  No matter how bad things might be going, there’s usually someone else whose situation is worse off than your own. In the case of the Pirates, who are 2-7 overall and winless in the American Athletic Conference, that someone is UConn. The Huskies have also yet to win a conference game and are 1-9. More important, Montgomery has had their number during his first two seasons at ECU. Of his eight career wins, two have come against UConn — 41-3 in Greenville in 2016 and 41-38 in Hartford a year ago.

  This year’s meeting is of particular importance to Montgomery, whose job security is very much in doubt with three games remaining. It’s a subject chancellor Cecil Staton addressed earlier this week when he issued a statement saying that “an assessment of the program will be made at the conclusion of the season” and that any speculation between now and then would be an unnecessary distraction.

  That doesn’t mean Montgomery will help his chances of coming back next year by beating the lowly Huskies. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially considering the alternative.

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