Five questions to ponder before kickoff


UNC quarterback Sam Howell (7) and wide receiver Beau Corrales celebrate a touchdown against Duke last Saturday (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Coaches will swear they only “take ‘em one at a time” and never look beyond the next game on the schedule. But we’ve reached the point in the college football season in which even they start to become numbers crunchers.

Specifically, how many wins their teams need to reach bowl eligibility.

For some, the magic number of six has already been attained and they can begin to set their sights on other, more challenging goals. Wake Forest and Appalachian State (despite Thursday’s loss to Georgia Southern) have already reached that point.

But for North Carolina, NC State, Duke and to a lesser extent, ECU, the count goes on. As we wait how many of those teams are able to reduce their magic number today and move one step closer to the postseason, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, Is Wake Forest really 0-7 under Dave Clawson following an open date?

Having a week off to prepare for your next game is supposed to be an advantage. But it’s been the opposite during the six seasons Clawson has been in the coach in Winston-Salem. Some of the Deacons’ post-open date woes can be traced to scheduling. The Deacons have lost games to Clemson, Florida State, at Notre Dame during that stretch. They were also beaten by Army in one of the Wakeyleaks games in which they opposition had their playbook ahead of time. But there have also been losses to Syracuse and Georgia Tech, along with a setback to Louisville earlier this season in which their defense was torched for 62 points. Clawson is at a loss for why his team has been so bad following off weeks. Today’s opponent NC State could be just the cure for what ails Wake. The Wolfpack has won only once in its last nine trips to BB&T Field dating back to 2003.

2,  Is Devin Leary finally the answer at quarterback for NC State?

The strong-armed redshirt freshman will become the Wolfpack’s third starting quarterback this season. It will mark the first time in school history that three different quarterbacks have made their first career start in a single season. The question is can Leary succeed where Matthew McKay and Bailey Hockman has failed before him? His performance over the final three quarters at Boston College two weeks ago at least give State hope. He was 15 of 33 for 259 yards and three touchdowns, all in the second half and all on fourth down plays, in the 45-24 loss to the Eagles. The most promising aspect of his effort was his ability to spread the ball around and get multiple receivers involved in the offense and introducing a viable vertical passing threat State hasn’t had previously this season. If he can build on the momentum and confidence he gained at BC, the Wolfpack’s chances of getting the two wins it needs for bowl eligibility — against a difficult schedule — increase significantly. One thing Leary has going for him is history. Each of the last six State quarterbacks has won his first career start. The last one to lose his debut? Russell Wilson.

3,  How long can UNC keep this up?

Mack Brown’s team keeps finding ways to pull a rabbit out of its hat with fourth quarter heroics that have kept the Tar Heels in the thick of the ACC Coastal Division race. Of their eight games thus far, seven have come down to the final drive or beyond. While they’ve lost some and they’ve won some — in increasingly more dramatic fashion — they never seen to get caught up in the drama. They simply come back the next week and create some more. So does the letdown finally come this week following an incredibly emotional last-second win against arch-rival Duke and the wild Victory Bell celebration it produced? Or do quarterback Sam Howell and a patchwork defense led by former quarterback Chazz Surratt have another gritty effort in them for tonight’s annual renewal of the South’s Oldest Rivalry?

4, Which Virginia will show up in Chapel Hill?

The Cavaliers started the season as the favorites to win the Coastal Division and they’re still in contention to do so, but they’ve opened the door for everyone else — including today’s opponent UNC — by being the model of inconsistency over the past few weeks. It’s a stretch that began with a stinker at Miami, in which they were only able to muster three field goals in a 17-9 loss. They followed that up with a dominant 42-14 rout of Duke before regressing last week in a 28-21 loss to rebuilding Louisville. Given that pattern, UVa figures to bring its “A” game to Kenan Stadium for tonight’s showdown with the Tar Heels. But we won’t know which Cavaliers show up until the game begins to unfold. Part of UVa’s problem has been an inability to protect star quarterback Bryce Perkins. It’s spotty offensive line play has forced Perkins to run for his life on too many occasions — leading to eight interceptions over the first eight games, compared to only nine touchdown passes. He has also been sacked 26 times, fourth-most in the ACC.

5, Can ECU at least stay competitive into the second half?

This might sound as though the bar is being set awfully low for the Pirates against Cincinnati today. But considering its first half performances in its two previous games, coach Mike Houston’s team will have its work cut out for it to keep from being hopelessly behind by halftime. ECU dug itself a 35-6 first half hole two weeks ago at Central Florida before at least making things respectable with a solid final 30 minutes. Then last week home against a very beatable South Florida team, they gave up 35 unanswered points after running back the opening kickoff for a touchdown on the way to a 42-20 throttling. Things won’t get any easier against the 17th-ranked Bearcats. The biggest key to avoiding another early collapse? Turnovers, especially in the red zone. They’ve haunted the Pirates all season, but especially the past two weeks. With at least two more winnable games still to play, ECU needs a strong showing today to regain the momentum lost following a promising start.

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