Five questions to ponder before kickoff


UNC running back Michael Carter (8) leaps over Wake Forest's Nasir Greer during last year's game in Winston-Salem (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

A year ago, North Carolina and Wake Forest played one another in a game that didn’t count in the ACC standings. The rare nonconference matchup between the in-state league rivals was the product of a divisional structure that had produced only three head-to-head meetings over the previous 11 years.

Frustrated over the devaluation of a series that had been played 101 times dating back to 1888, the Tar Heels and Deacons decided to arrange a game in Winston-Salem. They’re scheduled to play again, this time in Chapel Hill, next season.

But because the ACC has suspended divisional play and expanded its conference schedule to 10 games this season in response to the coronavirus pandemic, UNC and Wake will get an unexpected rematch today.

And this time, it will have an impact on the conference standings.

So while we wait for that bonus game between the Tar Heels and Deacons to kick off at Kenan Stadium — along with games involving other state schools NC State and Appalachian State — here are five questions to think about and consider.

1. Why is this a favorable matchup for Wake?

The Deacons might be a 13½-point underdog but because their strengths line up well with the Tar Heels’ most glaring shortcomings, it would not be an upset if coach Dave Clawson’s team pulls off a repeat performance of last year’s 24-18 victory.

UNC has committed critical turnovers in each of its two losses this season and Wake leads the nation with a plus-14 turnover ratio as including 11 interceptions. The Deacons have produced at least one takeaway in each of the past 15 games. Wake is also the second-least penalized team in the ACC while UNC, in the words of coach Mack Brown, has been “horrible” in that department. The Tar Heels have also had trouble protecting quarterback Sam Howell at times, a fact that could be a recipe for disaster against a pass rusher the quality of Wake’s Boogie Basham.

Wake also showed that its defense can hold up against a strong running attack by holding Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert to just 64 yards — 40 below his season average — a performance that will be needed times two in order to slow down the Tar Heels’ talented duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter Jr.

2. Can UNC figure out a way to play two good games in a row?

At their best, the Tar Heels are as good as they were hyped to be when they were ranked as high as No.5 in the nation only a few weeks ago. Just ask in-state rivals NC State and Duke. The problem is that Brown’s team has only been that good every other week.

In between the impressive dissections of the Wolfpack and Blue Devils were clunkers against Florida State and Virginia, a pair of teams that had only won once previously. In both of those games, UNC effectively beat itself — a pattern it will have to work hard to avoid against a Wake Forest team that, as previously mentioned, has the opposite DNA. 

3. Can NC State overcome the Law of the Wolf against a Florida State team in disarray?

At face value, tonight’s game against the Seminoles should be a slam dunk for the Wolfpack. Coach Dave Doeren’s team is at home and coming off an encouraging performance in a close loss to nationally ranked Miami, while Florida State is an absolute dumpster fire in coach Mike Norvell’s first season with the once-proud program.

The Seminoles come into the game at 2-5 with their only wins coming against FCS opponent Jacksonville State and a UNC team that played giveaway for the entire first half. As if the situation couldn’t get any better for State, FSU announced this week that four key players — All-ACC wide receiver Tamorrion Terry, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson, quarterback James Blackmon and offensive lineman Devontay Love-Taylor — are no longer with the team because of dismissal, transfer or injury.

It would appear as though the moon and stars are lining up just right for the Wolfpack in what could be the springboard for a strong finish to 2020. But as the Law of the Wolf reminds us, when things start looking good for State, things all too often don’t turn out well.

4. Will Appalachian State get caught looking ahead to next week’s showdown with nationally ranked Coastal Carolina?

The Mountaineers have taken care of business against the soft underbelly of the Sun Belt Conference, reeling off workmanlike wins against Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas State. The task will get significantly tougher starting next week when coach Shawn Clark’s team travels to Myrtle Beach for a game against 15th-ranked Coastal Carolina.

But first, App State must stay focused on the task at hand — a potential trap game at home against 3-3 Georgia State. The Panthers rank second in the conference in scoring offense with an average 36.7 points per game and will present a challenge to a Mountaineers defense that has only allowed 13 touchdowns in their first six games and is averaging just 17.5 points per game.

That matchup, however, doesn’t figure to be as pivotal as the one on the other side of the ball — where quarterback Zac Thomas and his stable of running backs figure to feast on a Georgia State defense that ranks dead last in the conference, allowing 40.2 points per game.

5. Will Charlotte play another game this season?

On Friday, it was announced that the 49ers’ game against Gardner-Webb on Saturday has been canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak and contact tracing within the Bulldogs’ program. It’s the second straight week and fifth time this season that Charlotte has either lost a game or had one postponed because of the virus.

The 49ers were supposed to play Middle Tennessee last Saturday, but the game was postponed because of a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in their program. Coach Will Healy’s team had previously had a nonconference game at North Carolina canceled, while games against Georgia State and Florida International were rescheduled because of 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. Charlotte is next scheduled to play at Marshall next Saturday in a Conference USA East Division matchup. Coronavirus notwithstanding.

Duke is off this week and East Carolina has already played, losing 55-17 at No. 7 Cincinnati on Friday, so that’s all for today. 

Enjoy the games and stay safe!