The weekly college football roundtable is back, folks, and just in time for the first weekend of the season that Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all play home games.
The Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack all play in the Triangle on Saturday night and while the games aren't all that attractive – they're all against lower-division opponents – this roundtable has never looked better. It includes columnist Luke DeCock, college beat reporters Andrew Carter and Laura Keeley and special guest Chip Alexander, a venerable veteran of ACC sports coverage:
Question: We don't have a lot to go on here, but after finally seeing Duke, N.C. State and UNC play a game, have your expectations for those teams changed at all?
Chip Alexander: Not for N.C. State. The Wolfpack’s opener against Troy went about as well as Dave Doeren and the N.C. State coaching staff could have wanted. Jacoby Brissett was sharp, Matt Dayes ran the ball efficiently and the offense was penalty-free. Defensively, N.C. State gave up a few big plays but that was overshadowed by Dravious Wright’s helmet-removing hit on the Troy quarterback that quickly went viral.
The word most used after the game was “clean.” For an opener it was a very clean, tidy game and did nothing to temper any expectations for the Pack.
Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): The Tar Heels can still win the Coastal Division, as coach Larry Fedora and his players were quick to point out after their season-opening loss against South Carolina, but that defeat provided more proof that UNC simply can’t get out of its own way. The Tar Heels didn't just lose, they lost after having a fantastic chance to win.
A victory might have been the most significant of Fedora's tenure. It would have made a 9-win season seem well within reach. As it is, though, the loss against South Carolina makes it difficult to shake the thought that this season will be much different than the past two. Eight regular-season wins now seems to be the ceiling for UNC, barring a 6-2 conference record that seems unlikely.
Luke DeCock: No change for Duke or N.C. State, which performed roughly as expected against clearly inferior opposition. A slight downgrade for North Carolina. Even though I expected the Tar Heels to lose going into the game, once I got a look at how exceedingly mediocre South Carolina was, there was no question that was a game North Carolina should have won. I was prepared to revise my preseason prediction of 7-5 upward with a good UNC performance, especially on defense, but 7-5 seems about right after that.
Laura Keeley: No, I still believe that Duke will be competitive in the Coastal Division. I was not expecting a significant dropoff with the roster turnover — the young players that stepped into first-time starting roles performed well at Tulane, and there's no reason to expect them to do anything other than grow in those roles as the level of competition improves. Thomas Sirk is an improvement over former quarterback Anthony Boone, to be honest — Sirk is bigger, faster, stronger and more accurate. All good things when talking about a quarterback.
Q: Not all that attractive a slate of games in the Triangle. Eastern Kentucky at N.C. State, North Carolina A&T at North Carolina and N.C. Central at Duke. Aside from staying healthy and avoiding a loss, what should be the priorities?
Alexander: For the Wolfpack, the biggest priority is to maintain the edge it had in the opener. The players spend all of preseason camp gearing up for the opener and the intensity level is high. A lot of freshmen got in the game, adding to that excitement level.
It was hard to pick out real problems areas after the first game, but Brissett was sacked three times last week and the defense had a major concentration lapse in the final seconds of the first half, allowing Troy to score in two plays, sandwiched around a face-mask penalty. That’s one video clip the defensive guys probably didn’t want to see again.
Carter: The Tar Heels have to find a way to rediscover their mojo in the passing game. UNC's past three games, going back to the end of last season, have been unkind for Marquise Williams, the fifth-year quarterback.
Williams has thrown two touchdown passes and four interceptions, and he hasn't been as effective as he was through most of last season. After throwing three interceptions against South Carolina – two in the end zone – Williams needs a clean, mistake-free game.
DeCock: N.C. State has a chance to get some meaningful game experience for freshmen like Nyheim Hines and Reggie Gallaspy. The latter was productive in late work Saturday, but the former didn't have much of an impact in his debut, at least not to the degree expected based on the word out of training camp. North Carolina needs to improve its offensive execution, cut out the penalties and play like a team with 10 returning starters on that side of the ball, which it did not last Thursday. Duke needs to give Nico Pierre some touches at running back, while every pass Thomas Sirk throws is a learning experience for the first-time starter.
Keeley: Duke needs to clean up some minor issues, like false start penalties and turnovers. Small mistakes get magnified against better competition, so N.C. Central gives the Blue Devils a nice opportunity to execute the whole practice makes perfect idea. Also, playing the Eagles gives Duke an opportunity to get young players more experience. And with five true freshmen expected to play major roles this year — WR T.J. Rahming, CB Jeremy McDuffie, DE Marquis Price, DT Brandon Boyce and LB Ben Humphreys — any playing time is quality experience time.
Q: UNC's Larry Fedora has taken a lot of criticism for keeping Elijah Hood on the sideline late in the Tar Heels' loss against South Carolina. But if Marquise Williams doesn't throw three interceptions UNC probably wins. Generally speaking, who deserves more of the blame in those kinds of losses – coaches or players who failed to execute?
Alexander: The coaches always say blame them, blame them. OK, let’s blame them. Also, you can’t fault a player for not executing when he’s sitting on the bench or standing on the sideline, ready to play but being held back by a coach. When a veteran player makes a mistake or two on plays he often executes, he’ll quickly accept the blame. But ultimately, it’s up to the coach to have his team prepared. Or take the blame.
Carter: The onus is on the coaches, and for a lot of reasons. For one, they're paid a lot of money to get things right. Second, coaching is their job, whereas college players have a lot going on off the field. It's the responsibility of the coaches to give their teams – and players – the best chance to succeed.
That said, players have to execute, too. Williams didn't execute late in that loss against South Carolina but neither did his coaching staff, which left the Tar Heels' most productive player – that'd be Hood – on the sideline.
Sometimes coaches have a tendency to over-think things and that seemed to be an example.
DeCock: Coaches. Always coaches. Williams took the blame willingly and honorably Thursday, and he made a few bad, costly throws, but North Carolina's offense looked unorganized at several different points in the game, betraying a lack of adequate preparation given the amount of experience on that side of the ball. (South Carolina was even worse, but that's a different story.) Williams' interceptions Thursday were a short-term, micro issue. The lack of polish and execution is a long-term, macro issue for North Carolina. If Vic Koenning's defense was the focus last season, Seth Littrell's offense is officially on notice this season (and by extension, Fedora).
Keeley: Alignment, including having the right people on the field, is one of the first building blocks to success on any play, as it happens before the ball is even snapped. That's on the coaching staff for having the wrong personnel on the field. Williams could have bailed them out, but still, the coaches were in the wrong before he even touched the ball.