N&O staffers break down first week of college football

Each week during college football season, columnist Luke DeCock and our college reporters will answer the most important questions of the weekend. Our roundtable discussion begins with what we’re most interested in seeing Saturday.

1. It’s finally here. Game day. What are you most looking forward to watching this week in the game you’re covering?

Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): We’ll finally see who North Carolina’s starting quarterback is, though I don’t think there’s much question that it’ll be Marquise Williams. The real question is how much time the backup plays. That could tell us a lot about whether the competition between Williams, a fourth-year junior, and Mitch Trubisky, a redshirt freshman, is still ongoing.

Luke DeCock (columnist): After hearing about him for 19 months, I’m extremely curious to see Jacoby Brissett in an N.C. State uniform. That makes the Wolfpack’s game the most compelling of the three less-than-compelling local openers.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): Brissett got here about a month after Dave Doeren was hired in December 2012. He was named the starter shortly after he transferred from Florida but had to wait until Saturday to actually get on the field. Much is expected of Brissett, a one-time star recruit out of West Palm Beach, Fla., and while N.C. State could use a miracle-worker, the Wolfpack really needs someone to make good decisions and let their best players (Shad Thornton, Bryan Underwood, Bo Hines) get out in space and make plays.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Actual football. We’re going on about a month of mostly relying on coaches’ and players’ descriptions of the team – I’m looking forward to being able to make my own observations. More specifically, though, as a writer, I always hope someone who has never played before – a true freshman or redshirt freshman, whatever – has a compelling debut so I can write a decent feature the next week.

2. OK, that sounds great and all. But look at who’s coming to town this week: Elon (at Duke), Liberty (at North Carolina) and Georgia Southern (at N.C. State). Are we really going to learn much about the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack in Week 1?

Carter: I would have said earlier in the week that UNC’s season-opener wouldn’t tell us much. But that was before the story of an alleged hazing – or fight, or altercation, or whatever you might call it – broke, leading to the suspensions of four defensive backs, including starting cornerbacks Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker. This is the first real off-the-field crisis that the Tar Heels have encountered under coach Larry Fedora, and it’ll be interesting to see how they respond. Does the team come together and put away an overmatched opponent? Is there a hangover from a rough week?

DeCock: We won’t learn much about their future prospects, assuming all three emerge unscathed, but I’m curious to see how several hazy positions come into focus in terms of playing time. That includes quarterback and running back at North Carolina, running back at Duke and wide receiver at N.C. State.

Giglio: When Elon or Liberty win at Florida, let me know. Look, the name’s not great, but N.C. State can’t afford to overlook anyone, especially after losing the last eight games of the 2013 season. And the Eagles, who beat the Gators 26-20 last year, are just dangerous enough to ruin N.C. State’s season. And let me paraphrase our columnist Luke DeCock here: “You can’t become bowl eligible in the first week of the season, but you can pour lighter fluid and douse your realistic bowl chances in the first week of the season.”

Keeley: No. Unless they’re awful, in which case we would learn that. That’s why I hope for an interesting debut because it’s hard to make super meaningful observations against such inferior competition.

3. Indeed, there’s no UNC at South Carolina this season. Is it better to start against a lesser opponent or with a “name” game?

Carter: Coaches might prefer to open with a lower-division team, but what better way to learn about your team than starting against a quality opponent? It’s also an excellent way to build exposure and enhance your brand, if you will, and that’s important for schools in North Carolina, where the craze over college football isn’t what it is in other parts of the south.

DeCock: I’m pretty sure every single coach would prefer to open at home against what used to be called I-AA teams and every fan would prefer to start with a nationally televised game against a top-25 opponent. But coaches are paid to win and fans pay to see games they want to watch. Personally, I’m with the fans.

Giglio: You know a coach believes he has a good team when agrees to play a major conference opponent on the road or in a neutral site game in Atlanta or Charlotte. The inverse is not always true, but it’s not a bad indicator. Honestly, it will be interesting to see where the “Power 5” conference goes with their autonomy. Some parts of the SEC have suggested only playing other “Power 5 conferences.” In reality, I could see a future where all five conferences go to 10 conference games and play two other Power 5 opponents. In my universe, there would be one preseason game, earlier in August, to get all of these “FBS” vs. “FCS” matchups out of the way.

Keeley: I think there is something to be said to working your way up to more of a “real” game. As Cutcliffe noted this week, this is the only sport where teams play no exhibitions against other teams before they start playing for real. Duke has only been playing Duke since last year. So, fine, play Elon to get back in the swing of things. I just wish there was a more appealing game on deck for week 2, but the Blue Devils will probably be double-digit favorites in every game until their ACC opener at Miami on Sept. 27.