College football action in the Old North State gets off an an early start again this weekend with the highly anticipated nonconference matchup between conference rivals North Carolina and Wake Forest.
It’s a strange dynamic given added spice by the Tar Heels’ fast start and the indirect connection between the teams to the infamous Wakeyleaks scandal.
As we wait for that battle to begin — along with a Saturday schedule highlighted by NC State’s first real test of the new season at West Virginia — here are five questions to think about and consider:
1. Are Mack Brown’s Tar Heels for real or still a work in progress?
Brown was asked this question specifically moments after UNC improbably improved to 2-0 with a last-minute 28-25 win against Miami last Saturday. His answer was typically glib, but right on the mark.
“I think we’re kind of a for-real work in progress,” he said. “I think that’s it. We’re not there yet by any means.”
While the Tar Heels might not be “there” just yet, they’re a lot farther along on the journey than anybody — even Brown — dreamed they would be after starting the season with wins against South Carolina and ACC rival Miami in last Saturday night’s triumphant home opener at Kenan Stadium.
By beating Wake on Friday, UNC would surpass its win total from all of last year and match the three victories it earned in 2017. But chances are the Deacons aren’t going to help the Tar Heels out the way the Gamecocks and Hurricanes did in their previous matchups. Not taking anything away from the performances of freshman quarterback Sam Howell or a revitalized defense, but both of those first two opponents left the door wide open for a comeback by not putting away UNC when it had the chance.
The Tar Heels will have their hands full with Jamie Newman and his high-powered Deacons’ attack and will have to work a little harder to put up a big number of its own after an injury to veteran center Nick Polino. Although they’re an underdog in this game, the results of the past two weeks suggest that it won’t be an upset if they manage to pull this one out.
2. Why is everybody still talking about Wakeyleaks?
It’s because UNC’s first-year defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was a central figure in the scandal that saw former Wake Forest player and broadcaster Tommy Elrod secretly pass copies of the Deacons’ playbook to several of their opponents. Bateman was at Army at the time and he used the leaked information to help the Black Knights beat Wake 21-13 in 2016. Bateman was subsequently suspended for two weeks and fined $25,000 for accepting the contraband information.
The Tar Heels’ Brown, as could be expected, is downplaying the connection — saying earlier in the week that Wake has “moved through it.” That’s not exactly the case, though. The folks at Wake are actually still stinging from the incident, and while they haven’t been vocal about it this week, you can bet they’d like to inflict a little pain on Bateman and his feel-good story in Chapel Hill the way they did two years ago when Louisville made its first trip to Winston-Salem after the scandal. That day, the Deacons rolled up 625 yards and 42 points in a convincing win against the Cardinals — who were the main beneficiaries of Elrod’s stolen intel.
3. Is NC State finally ready to beat a nonconference Power 5 opponent on the road?
Believe it or not, it hasn’t happened since Sept. 21, 2002, when the Wolfpack was coached by Chuck Amato and running back T.A. McLendon scored his fifth touchdown of the game to lead the Wolfpack to a 51-48 victory at Texas Tech. One week shy of 17 years later, Coach Dave Doeren’s young team finally has a chance to end the drought when it travels to Morgantown to take on a struggling West Virginia team.
This figured to be a much tougher task for the Wolfpack, but the Mountaineers have stumbled out of the gate under first-year coach Neal Brown. They struggled to beat James Madison in their home opener and were crushed to the tune of 38-7 at Missouri last Saturday. The most telling statement that this isn’t a typical WVU team is that State is favored by seven. On the road. Against a Power 5 nonconference opponent.
As promising as the situation might be for the Wolfpack, this game is hardly a slam dunk. It will be the first real test for rookie quarterback Matthew McKay and a young team that, while 2-0, has yet to play an opponent of significance and still has a lot to prove.
4. Can ECU continue to run the ball as well as it did against Gardner-Webb last week?
One of Mike Houston’s primary goals since arriving at ECU in December has been turning the Pirates into a more physical team. One way of doing that is by establishing an effective power running game. It’s an area in which they struggled during the three seasons of the Scottie Montgomery era and in this year’s opening game loss at NC State.
Last week, though, the fruits of Houston’s labor began to blossom with not one, but two backs rushing for more than 100 yards in a 48-9 thumping of Gardner-Webb in Houston’s home debut. Darius Pinnix gained 134 yards on the ground and true freshman Demetrius Mauney picked up 107 to become the first two ECU players since 2003 to top the century mark in the same game. It’s only the sixth time it’s happened in the last 40 years.
Clearly, the Pirates are a better offensive team — and sophomore Holton Ahlers is a much more effective quarterback — with a diverse attack that’s capable of moving the ball in multiple ways. But the question is whether last week’s promising performance was the product of Houston’s emphasis on the run game or the quality of the FCS opponent.
We’ll get a better idea of the answer this week against Navy, an American Athletic Conference rival that has given ECU fits over the years. The Midshipmen have fallen onto hard times lately, going 3-10 a year ago, so the potential for taking a major step forward in the Pirates’ rebuilding process is definitely there for the taking.
5. Why is Duke playing at Middle Tennessee?
When it comes to guarantee games, usually it’s the Power 5 team that plays at home. But this time, it’s the Blue Devils that are taking to the road to play a mid-major opponent from Conference USA.
So what gives?
As Duke coach David Cutcliffe tells it, his program still hasn’t gotten to the point where high-profile teams are willing to sign up for home-and-home series. So in order to get challenging road games — with the understanding that there will eventually be a return date in Durham — the Blue Devils have to lower their sights a bit and travel to places like Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“I think that for years and years, good college programs have home-and-home arrangements and I support that,” Cutcliffe said. “I like our team to go on the road to hostile environments. We were at Baylor and at Northwestern a year ago, and those are tough places to play. Middle Tennessee is a tough place to play. That makes you better when you go into conference road games.”
The Blue Raiders, by the way, were picked to finish fourth in their conference this season and are currently 1-1, having lost to Michigan and beaten Tennessee State.
That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!