Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Coach Mike Houston and his Pirates have had their spring practice interrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Another week, another round of COVID-19 related cancellations of college football game involving a North Carolina school.

This time, the casualties are the matchup between newly-minted ACC rivals Wake Forest and Notre Dame in Winston-Salem and Charlotte’s nonconference home game against Georgia State.

The Deacons and Irish will make up the game, which was originally scheduled to be played at Charlotte’s Bank of American Stadium, on Dec. 12. The 49ers and Panthers have yet to determine whether their game will be rescheduled.

East Carolina is all too familiar with the logistics that go along with the rescheduling of postponed games. The Pirates have already had two games wiped out by the pandemic. But after a longer wait than everyone else in the state, coach Mike Houston and his team will finally get to strap on the pads and play for the third time today. And that’s not the only game involving state schools.

So as you wait for the action to begin, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1, Could ECU have drawn a more difficult opening assignment?

Theoretically, yes, it could have. Alabama, Clemson and a handful of others would have been worse. But in the context of the American Athletic Conference and college football’s Group of Five, the Pirates are being thrown right into the fire by having to face 13th-ranked Central Florida right out of the gate. The Knights are 36-4 dating back to 2017 and have outscored ECU by a whopping 141-59 margin over that same stretch. They’re off to a 1-0 start this year after scoring a convincing 49-21 win last Saturday against a Georgia Tech team that opened its season by beating Florida State.

So what, if anything other than the emotion of opening day do the Pirates have going for them? There’s the element of unknown, for one thing. Not only will the Pirates have new players in new places UCF hasn’t been able to scout or prepare for, but they’ll also have a new defensive scheme thanks to the arrival of coordinator  Blake Harrell, who has built championship units at the FCS level. And then there’s the X-factor of quarterback Holton Ahlers, whose strong arm gives ECU at least a puncher’s chance against any opponent.

2, Is today’s game at Virginia a must-win situation for Duke?

It’s hard to think of any game this early in the season as being must-win, especially in a year when the NCAA’s bowl eligibility rules have been waived and everyone can participate in the postseason regardless of record. But for the Blue Devils to have a season they would consider anything close to a success, an 0-3 start would be extremely difficult to overcome. This was supposed to be an open week for coach David Cutcliffe and his team, giving them an opportunity to work out some of the problems that have plaugued them in opening losses to Notre Dame and Boston College. But because of COVID-19 postponements, the schedule has been shifted and they’ll be headed to Charlottesville to play a Virginia team making it’s 2020 debut. The good news for Duke is that is hasn’t played poorly defensively and it’s offense, led by Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice, has moved the ball between the 20s. If the Blue Devils can eliminate the turnovers and penalties, and take adavantage of a few more of its scoring opportunities, things will look a lot better on Sunday than they do right now.

3, Was Appalachian State’s loss at Marshall last week a hiccup or cause for concern?

The Mountaineers look to bounce back from a 17-7 loss at Marshall last week that all but eliminated them from their goal of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. But there could be bigger concerns for new coach Shawn Clark and his team as they move forward. App State was limited to just 96 yards on the ground, forcing Zac Thomas and his usually balanced offense to become one dimensional. The result was just seven points, none of which came after the first quarter. So did the Mountaineers just run into an underrated defense playing on its home field or will the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Darrynton Evans to the NFL draft leave an irreperable hole in their arsenal? They probably won’t get a lot of answers today against Campbell, but it still wouldn’t hurt put an emphasis on running the ball against the Camels.

4, Can the Camels spring the upset?

Campbell is in only it second season as a scholarship program affiliated with the Big South Conference and they’ve taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by picking up guarantee games against schools whose schedules have been altered by cancellations. But the Camels of former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Minter have already served notice that they’re not just playing the likes of App State for the payday. Despite having 17 players listed as inactive, they took Georgia Southern down to the wire before pulling to within 27-26 on a touchdown pass from Hajj-Malik Williams to Jalen Kelsey with 15 seconds remaining. Instead of playing for overtime, Minter went for the win. Even though Campbell’s two-point conversion attempt failed, the game and the ending served notice that the Camels aren’t to be taken lightly.

5, Have the moon and stars finally aligned for NC State?

Under normal circumstances, the Wolfpack would be facing a tall task in Blacksburg tonight against a Virginia Tech team that is nearly unbeatable at home. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Not only will the Hokes’ “Enter Sandman” entrance be a lot less intimidating without 60,000 screaming fans accompanying it, but coach Justin Fuente’s team will be without two of its best defensive players in All-ACC cornerback Caleb Farley (COVID opt out) and starting Safety Devon Hunter (suspension) and an undisclosed number of other key players still in quarantine after last week’s postponement against Virginia. Add to all that the fact that the Wolfpack’s offense under new coordinator Tim Beck looked like gangbusters in an opening week win against Wake Forest last Saturday and everything seens to be breaking in State’s favor. It is State, though. So it’s yet to be seen if the Wolfpack can take advantage of the situation and come away with a key ACC win.

That’s enough for this week. Keep your figures crossed that your favorite teams’ games get played. And if they do, enjoy them (at a social distance, of course)!