Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Bob Donnan—X02835
Virginia Tech has won four straight against UNC since the Tar Heels spoiled former Hokies coach Frank Beamer's Blacksburg farewell in 2015 (AP file photo)

It’s mid-October, that time of year when you’ve already eaten the first batch of candy you bought in anticipation of trick-or-treaters, the first Christmas commercials have already begun popping up on television and college football games start taking on a bit more meaning.

That last part of the equation has become a little skewed because of the disjointed nature of the 2020 season.

But there is at least one game with a bit more meaning today. It takes place in Chapel Hill, where North Carolina and Virginia Tech will face off in a grudge match that also has serious national overtones. It’s one of five games involving in-state teams on the schedule.

So settle in, grab a cold one and enjoy.  And while you’re waiting for the games to begin, here are some questions to think about and consider.

1. Are the Tar Heels really the eighth-best team in the nation?

Coach Mack Brown’s team came into the season with plenty of hype after finishing strong in 2019, and while it has won its first two games — including last week’s down-to-the-wire thriller at Boston College — UNC has yet to look the part of a top-10 team. That, however, could have more to do with the stop-and-start nature of the Tar Heels’ season than anything they’re doing wrong.

Now that they’re finally able to play for a second straight week, perhaps QB Sam Howell and his talented offense can start finding a rhythm and put up the kind of big numbers that have been expected of them. It won’t be easy, though, against a Hokies’ team that appears to be grossly under-ranked at No. 19.  Tech has been running over opponents — literally, averaging 319 yards per game on the ground in its first two games — and has won four straight against the Tar Heels since UNC spoiled former coach Frank Beamer’s Blacksburg farewell in 2015. The Tar Heels will earn their ranking if they come out on top in this one?

2. Can Devin Leary do it again?

The redshirt sophomore quarterback became an instant NC State legend last week at Pittsburgh by driving his team the length of the field in the final 1:44 before hitting Emeka Emezie in the end zone for the winning touchdown in the final seconds. The question now is, what does Leary do for an encore?

He’ll have the chance to add to his stature again today on the road at Virginia in a game that could help catapult the Wolfpack toward a better-than-expected season. But the truth is that he doesn’t need to repeat his 336-yard, four-touchdown effort for State to win the game. His passing success against Pitt should help keep UVa’s defense from selling out against the run, opening things up for talented backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. As long as the Wolfpack’s veteran offensive line does its job, Leary can lead his team to another victory simply by getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers and avoiding mistakes.

3. How is winless Duke favored at Syracuse?

The simple answer is that the Blue Devils aren’t as bad as their 0-4 record and the Orange have not distinguished themselves in going 1-2 over their first three games. There’s actually some validity to that theory as Duke looks to break out of the worst start of coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure. Two of the Blue Devils’ losses are to ranked opponents and the other two came on the road. And they did begin to show some signs of life, especially running the ball, in the second half last week against Virginia Tech.

Syracuse, meanwhile, has had trouble running the ball and protecting quarterback Tommy DeVito, problems that can be traced to opt-outs in the backfield and injuries on the offensive line. But the Orange’s defense has recorded 10 takeaways so far this season, a tendency that could become a deciding factor considering Duke’s penchant for turning the ball over.

4. Can ECU’s offensive line give Holton Ahlers time to finally start finding a rhythm?

Ahlers was a preseason All-AAC selection and is still one of the most talented quarterbacks in the conference, though you’d never know it from the statistics he’s put up through the Pirates’ first two games. He’s thrown for more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) and has been sacked six times, the product of an offensive line that has forced him to spend more time running for his life than looking downfield for open receivers. Three of those picks and four of those sacks came last week in a loss at Georgia State.

Today’s opponent, South Florida, presents an opportunity for both Ahlers and ECU to finally start gaining some confidence and making positive things happen. Like the Pirates, the Bulls are in a rebuilding mode under a new coach. But regardless of the opponent, it’s going to take a better performance from the offensive line for Ahlers to finally find some confidence and lead ECU to its first win of the season.

5. When will Appalachian State play another game this season?

The Mountaineers had their second straight game postponed because of a COVID-19 cluster and contact tracing. This week’s game against Louisiana-Lafayette, like last week’s against Georgia Southern, will be made up in December. Because both of the postponements were scheduled as midweek games, leading to longer breaks between them, coach Shawn Clark’s team will have gone nearly a month between its most recent contest — a 52-21 win against Campbell on Sept. 26 — and the next time it plays on Thursday, Oct. 22 against Arkansas State. That’s assuming that game isn’t postponed, as well.

That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games (especially if you’re one of the fortunate 7% allowed into Kenan Stadium for the UNC-Virginia Tech game).