Five questions to ponder before kickoff


NC State quarterback Ryan Finley takes a hit from Clemson's Christian Wilkins as he throws a pass during last year's game against the Tigers at Death Valley (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Six of the seven FBS football programs based in the Old North State will be in action today.

All of them are underdogs.

That, however, is about the only thing they all have in common. Because while two of those teams — Wake Forest and Appalachian State — stand a reasonable chance of pulling off the “upset” and winning their games outright, the others will do well simply to cover their double-digit spreads.

That includes NC State, which is getting anywhere from 32 to 33½ points against defending national champion Clemson, depending on which website you prefer. While the odds are stacked against the Wolfpack, as well as Duke against Notre Dame and East Carolina against SMU, there’s always a chance something crazy might happen.

That’s why the play the games. So as we count down the minutes until kickoff, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, Who’s decision was it to schedule State’s homecoming against the defending national champs?

Homecoming is traditionally a time for returning alumni to renew old acquaintances, trade stories about the good old days and celebrate an impressive win by their alma mater’s current football team. In an effort to ensure the latter, schools usually choose the weakest opponent on its schedule to help commemorate the occasion. Not NC State. Instead of going with Western Carolina or Ball State early in the season, or even Louisville next week, someone in their infinite wisdom decided it would be a good idea to schedule this year’s event against Clemson. That would have been a bad idea under any circumstances, but considering the current state of the Wolfpack — with a freshman quarterback starting his second career game and a defense riddled by injuries to key players — there doesn’t figure to be much celebrating going on at Carter-Finley Stadium.

2,  Can Wake avoid looking past Virginia Tech to next week’s showdown with Clemson?

It seems unnatural to refer to a road test at Virginia Tech as a trap game, especially when you’re Wake Forest. But how else would you classify what the Deacons have in front of them this afternoon in Blacksburg? Looming just over the horizon is the opportunity of a lifetime, a date against Clemson with the Atlantic Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game — if not more — on the line. But to make all that a possibility, coach Dave Clawson’s team must first take care of business against the Hokies. It’s definitely doable. Duke went into Lane Stadium earlier this season and beat the daylights out of Tech. And the Deacons have far more offensive firepower. But they also failed to deliver in a similar spot already once this season, getting caught looking past Louisville to a showdown with one-time nemesis Florida State. Wake gave up 62 points and lost that night last month. It can’t afford to let history repeat itself today.

3,  Does Duke have any more luck of the Irish left?

The last time the Blue Devils took on the Irish, a freshman quarterback named Daniel Jones helped pull off a shocker, throwing for 290 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-35 upset in South Bend. Jones went on to become a pretty fair quarterback and is now starting for the New York Giants, so maybe that result wasn’t as big a surprise as it seemed at the time. Four years later, the teams will meet again at Wallace Wade Stadium with coach David Cutcliffe’s team facing the same kind of long odds is did going into that game in 2016. Does Quentin Harris have the same kind of magic in his right arm? Or can Duke’s defense stifle the Irish the way Virginia Tech’s did until the bitter end last week? Either way, the Blue Devils need the win to move another notch closer to bowl eligibility, so chances are the effort will be there.

4, Can ECU put together another strong effort against a ranked AAC opponent or was last week’s near-miss against Cincinnati a fluke?

The Pirates were on the verge of the first signature win of the Mike Houston era last week, up 40-29 on then-No. 17 Cincinnati with just over eight minutes remaining at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. But as happens to teams still learning how to win, as ECU is, the game slipped away late in the most excruciating of fashions. Still, Houston’s team had a lot for which to be proud despite the disappointing 46-43 result, not the least of which was the school record-setting 535-yard passing performance by sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers. The task now for the Pirates is building on that effort and putting together another strong performance against a ranked AAC opponent — this time on the road against No. 23 SMU. It won’t be easy. The Mustangs are favored by 21 points. But they’re also coming off a loss last week, so maybe they’re ripe for the picking. That is, if ECU can finally find a way to put two good games together back-to-back.

5, Can App State make a clean sweep of the Carolinas?

The Mountaineers still hold out slim hope of earning a New Year’s Six Bowl as the top-rated Group of Five team at the end of the season, even after their undefeated season came crashing to the ground against Georgia Southern for the second straight season last week. In order to stay in contention, coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s team must win on the road against Power 5 opponent South Carolina today. App State has already pulled off one such victory, earlier in the season at North Carolina. And the Gamecocks are in a far more vulnerable state than the Tar Heels were at the time. It will take a strong effort, especially from quarterback Zac Thomas and his offense against a big, physical SEC defense. But then the Mountaineers are used to pulling off major upsets. And if they can come out on top again in Columbia today, they’ll be able to claim bragging rights over both Carolinas.

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