It’s been so long since Appalachian State traveled to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina in football that even new/old Tar Heel coach Mack Brown wasn’t born the last time it happened in 1940.
That alone makes today’s matchup between the Mountaineers and Tar Heels intriguing. The fact that the visitors from Boone might just be good enough to beat the state’s “flagship” program — even with UNC’s visible improvement under Brown — makes it all the more of a must-see event.
The 3:30 kickoff is one of five games involving state teams today. Duke has the week off. As we wait for the festivities to begin in Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem, Greenville, Clemson’s Death Valley and finally Carter-Finley Stadium for NC State’s night game against Ball State, here are five questions to think about and consider:
1, Can UNC learn to play the first three quarters as well as it does the fourth?
The Tar Heels are 2-1 and one of the feel-good stories of the early going this season under Mack Brown. But just imagine how much better they could be moving forward if they can figure out how to start games the way they finish them. Consider that UNC has outscored its first three opponents by a combined 38-9 margin in the fourth quarter. At the same time, its opponents have outscored it 60-32 over the first three periods — including a whopping 40-12 margin in the second and third. What’s the reason for the disparity? Perhaps Brown and his offensive coordinator Phil Longo still haven’t gained enough confidence in freshman quarterback Sam Howell to give him full rein of the offense until game situations make it necessary. Or maybe it just takes some time for this group to gain a rhythm. Whatever the case, it would behoove UNC not to fall too far behind a potent App State team today. Comebacks are exciting, but as last week’s loss to Wake Forest showed, they don’t always succeed.
2, Is App State the best football program in the state?
Numerically, the answer is a resounding yes. The Mountaineers have averaged 10 wins per season and won bowl games in each of their four years since becoming a full-fledged member of the FBS. They’ve won or shared three straight conference championships and are off two a 2-0 start under new coach Eliah Drinkwitz this season. Even with NC State’s two straight nine-win seasons, no one in the Old North State comes close to that success over the same stretch. There’s a rub to that success, of course. As fans of the Wolfpack, UNC, Wake Forest, Duke and even ECU will gladly point out, the competition App State has faced in the Sun Belt Conference is nothing compared to that of the ACC or even the American Athletic Conference. That is undeniably true. But it’s also an argument that can be rendered moot if the Mountaineers march into Kenan today and beat the Tar Heels on their own home (artificial) turf. And that’s a very realistic possibility given the number of veteran offensive weapons they have at their disposal. Barring a bowl matchup against another North Carolina-based opponent, a win at UNC today would give App State a legitimate claim to the mythical state title and more importantly, the title of the state’s best college football program.
3, How committed to Matthew McKay is Dave Doeren?
McKay hasn’t been bad in his first three games as State’s starting quarterback. He’s completed 58 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception in 113 attempts. But, as were exposed last week by West Virginia, he has also shown some glaring shortcomings as well. The sophomore has been noticeably inaccurate when throwing downfield thus far and he’s had trouble with his decision-making — especially when it comes to run-pass options. Both of those, along with the instinct to get rid of the ball rather than taking costly sacks, are things that can improve with time and experience. But with the ACC schedule looming on the horizon next week, the question is whether Doeren has the patience to let McKay grow into the job — especially since the Wolfpack coach is so high on prized recruit Bailey Hockman. Don’t be surprised to see Hockman get some meaningful snaps against Ball State tonight in what could turn out to be an audition for the starting job moving forward.
4, Can ECU take advantage of the soft spot in its schedule and start to build some momentum for Mike Houston?
If the first three weeks of the season has proven anything about the Pirates, it’s that they’re not yet ready to be competitive against Power 5 or even middle-of-the pack American Athletic Conference opponents. They are, however, capable of dominating lesser foes, as they did in Week 2 with their 49-8 beatdown of Gardner-Webb. It was a victory not to be downplayed, since ECU had lost its two previous games against FCS programs under former coach Scottie Montgomery. And wins, regardless of who they’re against, are the kind of positive reinforcement struggling programs need to gain confidence and momentum. With William & Mary coming to Dowdy-Ficklen today and Old Dominion coming up on the road next week. ECU has an opportunity to be over .500 and put together its first winning streak of any kind since the opening two games in 2016. Every rebuilding project has to start somewhere and the next two weeks figure to be the perfect jumping off point for Houston and his Pirates.
5, Is the beating Charlotte is going to take at Clemson today worth the guarantee money?
Apparently so. A million dollars still goes a long way when it comes to funding a fledgling athletic program like that of the 49ers. In exchange for the big number on the check, though, coach Will Healy and his team will have to endure the defending national champions putting a big number up on the Death Valley scoreboard tonight. The program has been through this before, having taken it on the chin at Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas State in the name of a financial windfall. Of course, there are at least a few other benefits to playing — and getting crushed — by such a high-profile opponent. There’s the exposure the 49ers will get from appearing in primetime on the ACC Network, along with the recruiting aspects of playing at least one game a year on such high-profile atmosphere. And, at least in this case, Charlotte’s offense appears good enough to score a few points and give its fans something beside the payday to cheer about.
That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!