Five questions to ponder before kickoff

UNC quarterback Sam Howell had a tough time against Appalachian State last week (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

Timing is everything in life.

It’s a fundamental truth that’s vividly illustrated by this week’s in-state college football schedule.

Exhibit A: Had Clemson’s first visit to Kenan Stadium since 2010 happened two weeks ago, it would have been a game that attracted national attention. And North Carolina, which was 2-0 at the time, might actually have stood a chance against the defending national champions.

Now, though, the Tar Heels are coming off two straight close losses and — much more significantly — are a banged-up bunch that is only a shadow of the version that beat South Carolina and Miami to start the season. 

Down in Tallahassee, meanwhile, a Florida State team that was a hot mess just two weeks ago finally appears to be getting its act together just in for NC State to come to town. Though this is still a winnable game for coach Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack, the task would have been much less challenging had the schedule worked out a little differently.

One team whose timing appears to be just right is Wake Forest, which heads to Boston College for its ACC opener playing at the top of its game. As we wait for that and today’s other games to kickoff, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Does UNC stand any chance at shocking the world?

It sure would have been fun to see this matchup with the Tar Heels’ lineup intact. But without seniors Charlie Heck and Nick Polino on the offensive line, top defensive player Jason Strowbridge rushing the passer and Patrice Rene in the secondary, coach Mack Brown’s team will be at an even greater disadvantage against Clemson that it might ordinarily have been. As good a young quarterback as Sam Howell is, his effectiveness — and decision-making — are directly related to the time he’s given to throw. And he didn’t have a lot of it against Appalachian State last week. So it figures that he’ll be on the run even more against the defending national champions. And while UNC’s defense is vastly improved from that of the previous regime, it hasn’t faced attack even close to what it will see from the Tigers’ Trevor Lawrence and his stable of receivers. That having been said, the Tar Heels still have playmakers on offense, an aggressive new defensive style and an attitude fueled by actual fans in the Kenan stands. So you’re saying there’s a chance? Not really. But covering the 27-point spread is a definite possibility.

2.  How important is it for NC State to get off to a fast start?

The Wolfpack has sputtered in the second half of its past two games. But while that’s a problem in need of attention, the focus today at Florida State is squarely on the game’s first 15 minutes. That’s because the Seminoles have outscored their four opponents thus far by a collective 56-9 margin in the first quarter. If State can weather the early storm in Tallahassee, there’s a good chance it can pull off a third straight victory against its ACC Atlantic rival — something it has never done before. Aiding the Wolfpack’s cause is FSU’s uncertainty at quarterback thanks to an injury to starter James Blackman. If Blackman can’t go, the much-less mobile Wisconsin grad transfer Alex Hornibrook will get the nod. Then again, State’s own quarterback situation could also be in flux with backup Bailey Hockman poised to replace starter Matthew McKay if things don’t go well early. Of course, if things don’t go well early, it might not matter who’s under center.

3. Can Wake Forest get over the fifth game hump?

The Deacons are 4-0 to start the season for the third time in six seasons under coach Dave Clawson. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they have yet to keep the momentum going by winning Game 5 — falling behind early and never catching up against NC State in 2016 before having their hearts ripped out late by Florida State the following year. This time, Wake travels to Boston College in search of its elusive 5-0 start in a game that has traditionally been a pivotal one for both programs. A season ago, the Eagles got five touchdown passes from quarterback Anthony Davis in a 41-34 win in Winston-Salem that catapulted them into the national polls. This year, it’s Wake that’s ranked 24th and riding high on the strength of a high-powered offense of its own, led by a dual-threat quarterback. Winning on the road is never easy in the ACC, but with a vastly improved defense and an enigmatic opponent that lost at home by three touchdowns to Kansas — KANSAS — two weeks ago, the Deacons are in a position to establish themselves as the second-best team in the Atlantic Division (and perhaps the entire conference) behind Clemson. 

4. Can ECU find a way into the end zone instead of settling for field goals?

New coach Mike Houston and his staff have already made some noticeable changes to the Pirates during the first four games of their debut season in Greenville. ECU is a much better defensive team than it’s been and it’s actually beginning to show signs of being able to run the ball. As encouraging as that might be, there are plenty of areas in which work is still needed. Among them is an inability to fully cash in on red zone opportunities. It’s a problem that was on full display last Saturday when the Pirates settled for four Jake Verity field goals in a closer-than-it-should-have-been 19-7 home win against William & Mary. Kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns has been a recurring problem over the past few seasons. It’s a pattern that has led to Verity earning first-team All-AAC recognition, but one Houston knows must change for his team to stand any chance of winning games — especially on the road — like today’s matchup at Old Dominion.

5. How vulnerable is Appalachian State to a post-UNC hangover?

The Mountaineers expended a lot of emotion in beating the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last week and were likely patted on the back by everyone they know upon their return to Boone. The trick now is to put all that behind them and regain their focus enough to avoid a setback in their Sun Belt opener against Coastal Carolina. It’s an issue coach Eliah Drinkwitz has tried to address by stressing the importance of winning the conference championship for the fourth straight year. But human nature is such that a letdown against Coastal Carolina today is a realistic possibility. App State is good enough on both sides of the ball to still beat the Chanticleers at home even without bringing their “A” game. But it better not take them too lightly. As it proved by going to Kansas and winning on Sept. 7 — the Jayhawks went to Boston College and beat the Eagles by three touchdowns — Coastal is no pushover.

That’s enough for this week. Enjoy the games!