Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Duke linebacker Kevin Gehsmann rings the Victory Bell following the Blue Devils’ 28-27 win against North Carolina in 2016 (Christine T. Nguyen /North State Journal file photo)

Mack Brown has brought back a lot of traditions in his return to North Carolina this season, the least of which is winning football games. Now, appropriately enough on homecoming, the new/old coach has a chance to add another one to the list as he and his Tar Heels try to take back the Victory Bell for the first time since 2015.

The revolving trophy for the UNC-Duke rivalry had a nearly permanent residence in Chapel Hill starting in 1990 — during Brown’s first tenure in Carolina blue — all the way through 2011, Only once during that 22-year stretch did the Victory Bell get a fresh coat of dark blue paint.

David Cutcliffe and his Blue Devils have since turned the tables on the Tar Heels, winning three straight and five of the last seven years, With both teams coming off losses and having work still to do to become bowl eligible, today’s matchup in Chapel Hill should be as intense and competitive as ever.

As we wait to see where the Victory Bell will reside for the next 12 months and what shade of blue it will be, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, What exactly is the Victory Bell?

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 annual rivalry 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. 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.

2, How much did last week’s six-overtime loss at Virginia Tech take out of UNC?

Physically, the players should be fine. They are young, well-conditioned athletes, after all. The emotional recovery from a game that lasted well over four hours and saw the Tar Heels waste several opportunities to win, on the other hand, will be much more difficult to overcome.The loss to the Hokies likely took UNC out of contention for the ACC Coastal Division title and made the hill to climb for bowl eligibility that much steeper. UNC has changed kickers for the game, replacing Noah Ruggles — who missed two potential game-winning kicks in the extra periods in Blacksburg — with walkon freshman Jonathan Kim. An even greater concern will be shoring up a defense that got shredded by the running of Virginia Tech backup quarterback Quincy Patterson. Duke’s Quentin Harris is an even more accomplished runner, not to mention a much better passer. Containing him will be job No. 1 for the Tar Heels today.

3,  Can Duke avoid beating itself?

The Blue Devils were their own worst enemy in last week’s lopsided 48-14 loss at Virginia, a setback that — like UNC’s loss at Virginia Tech — severely damaged their Coastal Division hopes. They turned the ball over five times on three fumbles and two interceptions. Of the 16 turnovers Duke has committed this season 11 of them have come in losses to ACC opponents Virginia and Pittsburgh. The good news for the Blue Devils is that the Tar Heels aren’t an especially opportunistic defense, ranking just 76th nationally with nine takeaways (six interceptions, three fumbles). If Harris and his offense can protect the ball and not give UNC short fields to work with — or worse, points — their chances of winning a fourth straight Victory Bell for the first time since the 1980s go up exponentially. 

4, Is this the week ECU finally gets over the hump and beats an AAC opponent other than UConn?

The Pirates have made incremental progress this season under new coach Mike Houston, from learning to beat teams they’re supposed to beat to playing on even terms in the second half  — though in a losing effort — with two-time defending American Athletic Conference champion Central Florida last week in Orlando. The next step in the building process is winning a conference game against someone other than perennial league doormat UConn, something they’ve done only once since the Ruffin McNeill era that ended in 2015. Today’s home game against South Florida would seem to be the perfect opportunity. The Bulls are hardly world-beaters at 3-4 (1-2 AAC) and are coming off a 35-3 beatdown at the hands of Navy last week. A win would keep ECU in contention for bowl consideration, but much more importantly would allow it to surpass its win total from each of the past three seasons while sending a message to its passionate fan base that better days are, in fact, coming.

5, Does Appalachian State have the inside track to a New Year’s Six bowl?

The highest ranked champion from the so-called Group of Five conferences — the AAC, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt — is guaranteed a bid to one of the six most prestigious postseason games on the college football calendar. While the Mountaineers are in a strong position at 6-0 and No. 21 in this week’s AP Top 25, they’ll still likely need help earn a spot in the Orange, Sugar, Rose, Peach, Fiesta or Cotton bowls. Cincinnati and SMU are both currently ranked higher than App State, meaning that they’ll probably each have to lose a game for coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s team to move ahead of them. The fact that they could potentially meet in the AAC Championship Game will definitely help the Mountaineers’ cause. All this, of course, is contingent on App State running the table and finishing unbeaten — starting with today’s game against 1-6 South Alabama.

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