Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Duke running back Deon Jackson scores on a 32-yard run during the Blue Devils' blowout win over the Hokies earlier this season (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP)

They don’t hand out trophies or determine college football champions in mid-October, especially in a chaotic division such as the ACC Coastal. At the same time, though, the games played this weekend could potentially go a long way toward determining which team earns the right to get spanked by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game come December.

Two of those games involved state teams with Duke traveling to Charlottesville to take on preseason favorite Virginia and Mack Brown’s surprising UNC team taking on Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have just one conference loss. By winning today, each will continue to hold its own destiny in the Coastal race — at least until they meet head-to-head in Chapel Hill next week.

It’s a gloriously beautiful early fall day and after two weeks of open dates and weeknight games, all seven of the state’s FBS teams are finally playing on a Saturday. So as we wait for things to kickoff, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, Is today the day the Tar Heels finally stop the Hokies from crowing?

It’s uncertain whether the trigger was UNC’s overtime win that spoiled retiring coach Frank Beamer’s last game in Lane Stadium or the excuses made by the Tar Heels made for getting routed by Virginia Tech during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Either way, the folks in Blacksburg — especially those running the football team’s official Twitter account — have made little secret of their pleasure in beating UNC since. Today, however, is the Tar Heels’ chance to shut their Coastal Division rival up. Building in confidence behind freshman quarterback Sam Howell and a defense that has already exceeded all expectations, with a chance to position themselves for a title, UNC is a 3½-point favorite against a Hokies team that has struggled on both sides of the ball — as evidenced by their 45-10 pounding at the hands of Duke on Sept. 27. The actual spread could end up being even wider if UNC can avoid the bad starts that haunted them against Wake Forest and Appalachian State, and doesn’t turn the ball over.

2,  Can the Blue Devils contain Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins?

Despite the presence of a dynamic quarterback with the capability of making plays with both his arm and his legs, the Cavaliers’ offense has sputtered over the past three games. Bryce Perkins failed to lead his team into the end zone last Friday, mustering only three field goals in a 17-9 loss at Miami. Much of UVa’s struggles stem from an offensive line that isn’t opening holes in the running game and isn’t giving Perkins any time to look downfield and find open receivers. It’s a deficiency Duke’s defense — led by linebackers Koby Quansah and Brandon Hill — must take advantage of in order to snap its four-game losing streak to coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Quentin Harris will be greatly aided by the absence of UVa’s All-ACC cornerback Bryce Hall, who suffered a season ending injury at Miami last week. While a win today won’t wrap up a Coastal Division title for the Blue Devils, it would — combined with its earlier drubbing of the Hokies — clinch the Virginia state championship.

3, Who wins the battle between NC State’s immovable object and Boston College’s irresistible force?

Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren called it “an old school game in the trenches.” Sackmeister Larrell Murchison called it “big boy football.” Either way, today’s game in Chestnut Hill is a classic matchup of strength against strength. While State has limited its opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground in five of its six games and leads the ACC with an average of 66.7 rushing yards allowed, the Eagles rank second in the league at 253.2 yards per game on the ground and have the conference’s leading rusher in A.J. Dillon. BC’s reliance on Dillon only figures to increase today now that starting quarterback Anthony Brown has been lost for the season. Although his replacement Dennis Grosel threw three touchdown passes after coming in against Louisville in the Eagles’ most recent game two weeks ago, he only completed 9 of 24 passes for 11 yards. The Wolfpack’s ability to keep Dillon in check will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game as both teams look to move one step closer to bowl eligibility.

4, Was last week’s loss to Louisville a Wake up call?

Wake Forest was riding high heading into last week’s home game against supposedly rebuilding Louisville. As it turned out, maybe it was riding a little too high. Whether they got caught looking ahead to today’s key ACC Atlantic matchup against Florida State or their defense was simply exposed by a hungry and improving young opponent, the Deacons got knocked down a few pegs with a 62-59 loss to the Cardinals. The question is can they get back up and resume their winning ways against a rival that’s had their number over the years. You can bet coach Dave Clawson has used last week’s game as a teachable moment and that his players will be plenty motivated to bounce back and not waste their promising start to the season. Even if injured starting quarterback Jamie Newman can’t answer the bell tonight, Wake is blessed to have an experienced backup in Sam Hartman to take his place. Hartman led a comeback that nearly pulled the Louisville game out last Saturday. Even though the rally fell short, it provided some momentum the Deacons can carry with them against the Seminoles. That is, if they decide to show up ready to play.

5, Has the gap between ECU and Central Florida shrunk enough for the Pirates to pull off the upset?

The gap has narrowed some, but only because Mike Houston and his staff have arrived in Greenville and made an immediate improvement in the Pirates’ once-porous defense. But don’t let the fact that the Knights have lost two games already this year — two more than they’d lost in each of the past two regular seasons combined — fool you into thinking that they’re still not one of the best teams in the AAC. UCF showed that by putting up 45 points against Stanford in a convincing win against the Cardinal. Its two losses were by three points on the road against fellow AAC contender Cincinnati and on a last-minute field goal by Pittsburgh after rallying from a three-touchdown deficit. Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel isn’t another McKenzie Milton, but he is completing 60 percent of his passes and leading an offense still very capable of putting up big numbers. The Pirates will do well just to keep this one competitive on the road.

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