Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Linebackers Isaiah Moore and Vi Jones will have their hands full against Liberty and quarterback Malik Willis tonight (ACC pool photo)

It’s a light weekend for college football in the Old North State thanks to North Carolina’s open date and the cancellation of two games — Wake Forest-Duke and Charlotte-Marshall — for COVID-19 related issues.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t meaningful games still being played.

The most impactful is scheduled for Conway, South Carolina, where Appalachian State will try to maintain its grip on the Sun Belt Conference against East Division rival Coastal Carolina — the undefeated 15th-ranked team in the nation.

Later in the evening, NC State will get a crack at another surprising upstart when it attempts to end similarly undefeated Liberty’s joy ride through the ACC and the national polls all the way to No. 21 in this week’s rankings.

In between, East Carolina will attempt to salvage something from a brutal season by traveling to Philadelphia to take on Temple, a team it has never beaten since joining the American Athletic Conference.

As we wait for those games to kick off, here  are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Is Liberty really this good?

The Flames are no fluke. You don’t win eight straight games by accident. At the same time, though, coach Hugh Freeze’s team has beaten only one team of substance — Virginia Tech two weeks ago. And that victory was as much the product of the Hokies losing the game as it was Liberty winning it. Four of the other teams on the Flames schedule have yet to win a game in 2020 and the other three — Western Kentucky, Southern Miss and a dreadfully bad Syracuse squad — have combined for just six victories between them.

Don’t misunderstand, Liberty is no pushover. State is going to have to play a strong game on both sides of the ball and avoid big mistakes to win. But there’s a reason the Las Vegas oddsmakers have set the Wolfpack as a five-point favorites.

2. Does the Wolfpack have an answer for Flames quarterback Malik Willis?

In order for coach Dave Doeren’s team to make the folks in Vegas look good, job one will be finding a way to contain Liberty’s talented dual-threat playmaker. A transfer from Auburn, Willis is very similar in style and substance to Miami’s D’Eriq King, who torched the Wolfpack for five touchdowns in a 44-41 win two weeks ago. Willis has completed 68% of his passes for 1,645 yards and 15 touchdowns and is an even better runner than King, with a team-leading 700 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground through eight games.

The Wolfpack’s offense will likely have to put up a significant number to win this game. It will be up to Alim McNeill and the big guys up front to keep the pressure on him in the passing game and State’s linebacking corps to contain him when he pulls the ball down and looks to make things happen with his legs to make sure that number isn’t too big.

3. Is Coastal Carolina really this good?

This one is a little harder to determine on the national scale. But as far as the Sun Belt Conference is concerned, the Chanticleers are the real deal. Not only have they beaten FCS opponent Kansas already this season, but they also have a win — on the road, no less — against West Division frontrunner Louisiana.

The bottom line is that App State task this afternoon is no day at the beach — especially if quarterback Zac Thomas isn’t able to play. The most ominous sign is the teams’ results against common opponent Georgia State. Coastal beat the Panthers 51-0. The Mountaineers had to rally late to win 17-13 last week. One thing going in App’s favor, though, is that it has played and won big games like this before. Coastal is getting its first kick at the can as a Sun Belt title contender. With a chance to play in the conference title game on the line and a sellout crowd expected, all the pressure will be on the Chants.

4. What does it mean for App State’s chances if Thomas can’t play today?

Thomas suffered what appeared to be a serious injury late in last week’s win at Georgia State on a late hit as he was running out of bounds and was taken to the hospital as a precaution. Coach Shawn Clark hasn’t revealed the exact nature of his quarterback’s ailment, but has since reported that it wasn’t as bad as it looked at the time. Thomas is listed as day-to-day, but is expected to be available for today’s game.

If he can’t answer the bell, the task of leading the offense will go to backup Jacob Huesman, a senior who completed what turned out to be the winning drive. Huesman is a competent player who runs better than he throws, and the Mountaineers have confidence in him. But there’s a big difference between finishing off one drive and putting together a winning four quarter effort — especially against a ranked opponent — in place of a three-year starter who has led the team to 30 wins in its past 34 games.

5. Does ECU have enough motivation left to take advantage of its last best chance at a win?

The Pirates couldn’t be blamed for just wanting to get 2020 over and done with so they can start looking ahead to playing under more normal circumstances next fall. At the same time, today’s game at Temple is eminently winnable if they can muster the motivation to stay focused and put together a decent effort. Even though ECU hasn’t had much luck against Temple in the past, going 0-6 since 2014, this year’s Owls are birds of a different feather. In fact, they’re almost a mirror image of the Pirates.

Both teams come into the game 1-5 with their only wins coming against the same opponent, South Florida. Both teams had to wait three weeks into the season to play their first game because of coronavirus-related issues. The difference today is that Temple will be starting a fourth-string quarterback because of a positive COVID-19 test by starter Anthony Russo and injuries to his two backups. Because of that, ECU is actually a four-point favorite. With only 7-2 SMU left on the schedule after this, today’s game in Philadelphia is the Pirates’ last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise lost season.

That’s all for today. 

Enjoy the games and stay safe!