Five questions to ponder before kickoff

UNC, NC State and renew their football rivalry in Chapel Hill today (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s always a special day when rivals get together for their annual reunion on the football field.

Even when it’s not the last game of the season.

The anticipation for today’s showdown between No. 14 North Carolina and No. 23 NC State at Kenan Stadium is even greater than usual because of the circumstances involed. It’s the first time both teams have been ranked when they played since 1993 and only the third time ever.

On paper, this should be an evenly matched game between a pair of one-loss teams. And yet, the folks out in Vegas have set the Tar Heels as a 14 1/2-point favorite.

That might have something to do with the hype surrounding coach Mack Brown’s team and the fact that they were ranked as high as No. 5 before last week’s loss at Florida State. The Wolfpack’s loss of starting quarterback Devin Leary to injury also likely factors into the equation.

Whatever the reason, it should be fun. So while you wait for the game — and others involving Wake Forest and Charlotte — here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Which UNC team will show up for today’s rivalry game?

The Tar Heels were two different teams last week in Tallahassee. In the first half, they were a sloppy, self-destructive unit that fell behind 31-7. They bounced back to play a solid second half in which they outscored FSU 21-0 to get back into contention until a pair of drops by open receivers on the final drive ended their comeback bid. State is a much better and more motivated opponent than the Seminoles were last week, so if UNC leaves the door open again, the Wolfpack will be willing and able to make it pay. On the other hand, quarterback Sam Howell and his stable of talented receivers could have a field day against a depleted State secondary if the line gives him time to throw and UNC brings its “A” game for 60 minutes.

2. Can State win with Bailey Hockman at quarterback?

Hockman, who takes over for the injured Leary, has already won a game for the Wolfpack this season. Although the running game was front-and-center in a 45-42 opening week win against Wake Forest, the junior left-hander threw for 191 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another score in the game. He also threw a touchdown pass after relieving Leary in last week’s win against Duke. Hockman doesn’t have as strong an arm as Leary, but he has plenty of playmakers surrounding him in Zonovan Knight, Ricky Person Jr., Cary Angeline, Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas and others. If he distributes the ball, manages the game and avoids disastrous mistakes — something he hasn’t always been able to do — he is fully capable of leading his team to victory.

3. Can Dave Doeren continue his mastery in Chapel Hill?

There’s no rhyme or reason to explain it, but State has been at its best when playing UNC at Kenan Stadium. The Wolfpack is 3-0 on the Tar Heels’ home field under Doeren. By contrast, the Tar Heels have won three of four games at Carter-Finley Stadium during Doeren’s tenure.

4. Can Wake Forest’s defense limit Virginia Tech’s big plays?

The Deacons have proved they can score points. Their problem so far this season has been defense, specifically their inability to prevent explosive plays. Wake has given up 23 plays of 20 or more yards through the first four games. Ten of those have come on the ground. That could be bad news against a Hokies team that has 15 runs of 20 or more yards, with five of them coming last week against Boston College. Tech is 3-0 this season run rushing for 300 or more yards. Conversely, the Deasons are 0-5 in games in which they’ve given up more than 300 yards since Dave Clawson took over as coach in 2014. Needless to say, stopping the run and limiting explosive plays are a priority.

5, Will Charlotte finally get to play a home game?

Barring an 11th-hour COVID-19 outbreak, it looks as though the 49ers will actually get to play their home opener today after having their first two this season postponed or canceled. Although Charlotte has a three-game winning streak at Richardson Stadium, its most recent game there was 11 months ago  — on Nov. 23, 2019. The good news for coach Will Healy’s 1-2 team heading into today’s game against Conference USA foe Texas-El Paso (3-2) is that it’s coming off a win at North Texas in which it set school conference records for points (49), touchdowns (7), total offense (599) and margin of victory (28) in a 49-21 league win.

Duke and East Carolina are both off this week, so that’s all for now. Enjoy the games!