Five questions to ponder before kickoff


UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt (21) defends in the end zone against Duke before his game-saving interception in the final seconds of last year's game at Kenan Stadium (Robert Clark/North State Journal)

North Carolina and Duke have met 106 times on the football field. 

On that, the rivals agree.

There isn’t as much of a consensus as to the teams’ records against one another in a series that dates all the way back to 1888. The Tar Heels say they lead 62-40-4, while as far as the Blue Devils are concerned, UNC’s advantage is only 61-41-4.

The discrepancy is the result of a game that was supposed to be played in 1889. Because of a misunderstanding over where the game would be held, both sides thought they were the home team. As such, they both claim the game as a victory by forfeit.

There is no doubt about the venue of today’s game. This year’s — hopefully not disputed — renewal will take place at noon at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium. As we wait for the battle for the Victory Bell to kick off, along with other games involving East Carolina and Appalachian State, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. For whom does the Bell toll this year?

The Tar Heels are an 11½-point favorite. But they were also a double-digit favorite against Florida State and Virginia, and they lost to both of those teams that had won only once this season previously — sending coach Mack Brown’s team from No. 5 in the nation to out of the polls in the span of just three weeks.

Both of those games were on the road, as is today’s rivalry tilt against the Blue Devils. As different as the teams are in terms of hype, expectations and offensive firepower, they’re very similar in terms of their self-destructive tendencies. Duke is averaging 3.3 turnovers per game, while UNC’s demise at Virginia last week was hastened by a muffed punt just before halftime and a Sam Howell fumble just after it during a run of 28 unanswered points by the Cavaliers.

Given their history, at least in 2020, the winner of this game will likely be the one that does the best job of not beating itself. 

2. Will UNC’s defense make Chase Brice look like a Heisman Trophy candidate instead of just a Heisman candidate’s former backup?

The Tar Heels scored what should have been enough points to win last week in their 56-45 loss in Charlottesville. But it turned out not to be enough because of a porous defense that couldn’t contain a quarterback that had struggled with everyone else they’ve played this year.

Florida State’s Jordan Travis torched UNC for big plays with both his arm and legs in throwing for 191 yards and rushing for 107 and two touchdowns in his first career start. Last week, Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong — a turnover machine against everyone else — channeled his inner Bryce Perkins by accounting for four touchdowns while getting intercepted only once.

This week, the Tar Heels will try to avoid helping Duke’s Chase Brice look more like the quarterback that has been picked off 12 times already this season rather than Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback he backed up at Clemson before joining the Blue Devils.

3. How will East Carolina bounce back from last week’s disputed loss at Tulsa ?

The Pirates had a hard-earned and badly needed victory taken from them last week when officials reversed a call on a fumble that should have given them the ball with a chance to run out the clock. The American Athletic Conference later acknowledged that a mistake was made and ECU should have been awarded possession. That, however, was small consolation. The touchdown Tulsa scored with less than a minute remaining as a result of the blown call can’t be overturned, and the game will go into the record books as a heartbreaking 34-30 loss.

It was the kind of disappointment that can demoralize a young team that isn’t used to winning. But it can also turn into a rallying point that strengthens it moving forward. Today’s home game against Tulane will go a long way toward determining which direction coach Mike Houston’s Pirates goes.

4. Is Appalachian State really as good as it has looked the past two weeks?

The Mountaineers have looked strong in their two games since beginning the Sun Belt Conference portion of their schedule two weeks ago. They’re averaging better than 300 yards on the ground and allowing just 17 points per game in wins against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. It’s yet to be seen, however, if those strong performances are as much a result of App State getting its act together after an early loss at Marshall and a three-week coronavirus layoff as it is the quality of competition. ULM is winless this season and Arkansas State has a losing record.

Things will get tougher soon when coach Shawn Clark’s team hits the meat of its schedule against the top half of the Sun Belt Conference. But for now, today’s game at 1-7 Texas State figures to be just another tuneup for the difficult tests to come.

5. Can Charlotte catch a break when it comes to COVID-19?

The 49ers were supposed to play Middle Tennessee today, but the game was postponed because of a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in their program. This is the fourth time this season that Charlotte has had a game affected because of coronavirus concerns. Coach Will Healy’s team lost a nonconference game at North Carolina and have had games against Georgia State and Florida International postponed because of previous outbreaks or false positive testing.

The FIU game has been rescheduled to Dec. 5. There’s still no word as to when or if the Georgia State or MTSU games will be played. On the plus side, Charlotte announced earlier this week that they’ll play a future home-and-home series against NC State.

Wake Forest is off this week and NC State has already played, losing a hard-fought 44-41 decision to No. 11 Miami on Friday, so that’s all for today. 

Enjoy the games and stay safe!