Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Wake Forest's Cade Carney runs for a touchdown in last year's win against Duke (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

NC State was eliminated from postseason consideration with its loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday. North Carolina and Duke need wins today to keep their hopes alive while Charlotte can become bowl eligible for the first time in school history.

It’s that time of year, when the games become bigger and the margin for error is smaller.

As we wait to see who’s in, who’s out and who still has work to do, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1,  Does the recent pattern of Duke-Wake showdowns favor the underdog Blue Devils?

The Deacons are a six-point favorite in this friendly rivalry of ACC crossover opponents, but if recent history is any guide, it’s the Blue Devils that figure to have the advantage at BB&T Field this afternoon. In 2018, coach David Cutcliffe brought his team to Wake needing a win to become bowl eligible against a Deacons squad already safely qualified for the postseason and came away with a 31-23 victory. Last year — also in the final game of the regular season — it was Wake that needed the win to extend its season while Duke was already bowl eligible. Again, the desperate team won, by an overwhelming 59-7 mark. So will history repeat itself this time? Coach Dave Clawson’s Deacons might be 8-3 with a shot at only the second 10-win season in school history, but they’re a banged up group with their best defensive player (LB Justin Strnad) and top receiver Sage Surratt sidelined with injuries. And the Blue Devils need the win to even have a shot at the six-win mark. Don’t count them out.

2,  Can Mercer’s football team recreate the magic of its basketball team?

Back in 2014, Mercer’s senior-dominated basketball team came to Raleigh and stunned a Duke team led by current NBA players Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood 78-71 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. This afternoon, the Bears’ will bring their football team to the Triangle with hopes of pulling off a similar upset of UNC. Such a victory wouldn’t resonate nationally the way that hoop shocker did. But it would be just as unexpected. The Tar Heels are a 34-point favorite against their FCS opponent, which is 4-7, which has lost to the likes of Campbell, Wofford and East Tennessee State. If you’re thinking that coach Mack Brown’s team might get caught looking ahead to next week’s regular season finale against rival NC State, it’s certainly possible. But it’s also unlikely considering that UNC still needs to win its final two games to get back to a bowl for the first time in three years.  The biggest key for the Tar Heels, other than winning of course, is making sure all its good players get through the game in good health.

3,  What does Appalachian State need to do to get into a New Year’s Six bowl?

The first thing the Mountaineers need is to beat a 3-7 Texas State team at home today. Then it needs to win its regular season finale against Troy and a second straight Sun Belt Conference championship game to finish at 11-1. Coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s team then needs some help. A lot of help. The New Year’s Six automatic bid goes to the non-Power 5 team ranked highest in the College Football Playoff rankings at the end of the regular season. App State is currently No. 23. But Cincinnati (No. 17), Memphis (18), Boise State (20) and SMU (21) are all ranked higher. For the Mountaineers to leapfrog everyone and earn the major bowl bid, they need Memphis beat Cincinnati in a regular season game next week, then have the Bearcats (who have already clinched the AAC East) beat SMU in their conference championship game. Finally, Boise State needs to lose at least once against Utah State, Colorado State or the Mountain West Conference title game. No problem, right? The shame of if App State doesn’t have things break its way and ends up in the dreary New Orleans Bowl again is that it’s  the only one of the bunch — and one of the few at any level — that has beaten two FBS opponents on the road this season. 

4, How important is today’s game at UConn for ECU?

It’s huge, because it represents what might be the Pirates’ last best chance at a fourth victory that will surpass their total from each of the past three seasons. It’s also their final opportunity at playing the one AAC rival they’ve consistently been able to beat since joining the conference in 2014. ECU is 4-1 all-time against the Huskies and has won three in a row in the series. That represents three of the last four conference victories for the Pirates. But UConn is leaving the AAC after this season to play as an independent. In order to take advantage of this final crack at the Huskies, coach Mike Houston’s team needs to keep scoring with the proficiency it has shown in its past two games — averaging 47 points against ranked opponents Cincinnati and SMU — while playing at least enough defense to keep the AAC’s lowest-scoring team somewhere in the vicinity of its 16-point per game average.

5, Is today the day Charlotte makes program history?

The 49ers’ 28-21 win at UTEP two weeks ago put them on the verge of accomplishing something special in Will Healy’s first season as coach. At 5-5, they’re just one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time in school history. Finishing the job today won’t be easy against a Marshall team that has already won seven times and has a chance to win the Conference USA East. But Charlotte is at home and gaining confidence on the strength of a three-game winning streak. And there’s not a lot of pressure right now with a date against 1-9 Old Dominion still coming up next week as a safety net.

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