Duke (3-0) at North Carolina (1-2)
Duke and North Carolina will make history when they take the field at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, marking the earliest battle in 104 meetings.
“It’s so unusual to be playing this game early,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Wednesday during the ACC’s weekly teleconference. “I think it’s going to add a little life to it, to be honest with you.”
Duke’s league opener not only provides a chance to start 1-0 in conference play and a chance to keep the Victory Bell in Durham, but also an opportunity for Cutcliffe to earn the 100th victory of his career.
The Blue Devils head into Saturday’s game looking to improve to 4-0 for just the second time since 1994, when the squad started 7-0.
“I think this is by far the best overall Duke team that I’ve seen in my five years here,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora.
“I think their pressure execution is really good on defense. I think offensively, just running the system that David is wanting to run right now with (quarterback) Daniel Jones, I think it really fits the quarterback and the kid really understands it. I think they have always had some guys that made plays, but I’m just looking overall, both offense and defense, and both those phases, I just think together it’s the best that I’ve seen in the last five years.”
The Blue Devils won last year’s meeting, 28-27, in Durham. Duke’s last win in Chapel Hill came in 2013.
Last season, Jones accounted for three touchdowns in Duke’s upset of the Tar Heels. Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris logged 16 tackles in the win, helping the Blue Devils hold UNC to just six points after halftime.
Duke’s defense is off to a hot start this season, allowing just 47 rushing yards per game. The Blue Devils rank seventh in the nation in total defense at 223 yards per game and their opponents have converted just 12 percent of their third downs.
“I just think they’re competing every down,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve really done a good job of trying to make it hard for an offense to be successful. I think the best defenses I’ve ever coached against as an assistant coach were ones that it felt like they were making it hard every snap. So we are competing together. They’re playing well together.”
The Tar Heels, who managed just 17 rushing yards two weeks ago in their ACC-opening loss to Louisville, racked up 254 yards and six rushing touchdowns — their most since 2015 — in a 53-23 rout of Old Dominion last week. Jordon Brown had 123 yards rushing and two scores, with Michael Carter adding a pair of touchdowns.
UNC has also seen its young quarterback, Chazz Surratt, make strides in the first three games of his carrer. The redshirt freshman has thrown for four touchdowns and has no interceptions so far this season.
“You’re seeing he’s more comfortable,” Fedora said of Surratt’s growth. “I’m not going to say that the game has slowed down for him, but he’s definitely more comfortable out there in the offense.
“I think he has a better understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. You know, there’s still things that are moving really fast for him. And as we feed a little bit of the offense to him each and every week, he picks up on it and he’s doing a good job of not making the same mistake twice.”
UNC could have up to 15 players out on Saturday. The Tar Heels lost three more starters with linebacker Andre Smith, wideout Thomas Jackson and offensive tackle William Sweet out for the season.
N.C. State (2-1) at Florida State (0-1)
The Wolfpack will have its first shot at putting the ACC on notice when it visits Tallahassee on Saturday for a matchup with Florida State, the league’s preseason favorite.
N.C. State has lost each of its last five trips to Doak Campbell Stadium, with the last win coming in 2005. Last season, the Wolfpack dropped a heartbreaker to the Seminoles. N.C. State entered the fourth quarter with a 20-17 lead, but a dropped interception in the endzone, giving FSU another chance to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the quarter.
“Look forward to the opportunity to go down there and play our best,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said during Wednesday’s teleconference.
Led by quarterback Ryan Finley, who boasts the nation’s longest streak of consecutive pass attempts without an interception at 192, the Wolfpack offense will face a stiff test against a veteran defense led by safety Derwin James.
N.C. State’s defense is getting healthier in the secondary, with cornerback Mike Stevens set to make his season debut after missing the first three games with a knee injury.
But the focus will be in the trenches in a battle between N.C. State’s vaunted defensive line and Florida State’s experience on the offensive line.
“They have five returning starting offensive linemen. … You’re not going to able to get there with just four,” Doeren said. “We’re going to have to change up, different looks, change things up coverage-wise at our front end.
“We got to run our system and change things up and not be predictable, make plays when the plays are there to make. It’s going to be a great battle. They have five returners up front. We got four on defense in our front. The line of scrimmage is going to be a definite key for both teams.”
FSU hasn’t played since the season-opening loss to Alabama due to Hurricane Irma-related issues and will have a freshman starting quarterback in James Blackman after losing Deondre Francois to a season-ending knee injury.
Wake Forest (3-0) at Appalachian State (2-1)
After improving to 3-0 for the second consecutive season, Wake Forest is set to travel to Boone for the first time in program history to face Appalachian State.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson knows his team is in for a challenge against a program that has a history of scaring Power 5 teams.
“They’re not just a good football team, they’re an excellent program,” Clawson said. “They have a quarterback starting his 40th game. They got the Offensive Player of the Year as a tailback in the conference a year ago. They’re very stout on defense. They’re extremely well-coached. This will be a great atmosphere and a really challenging game for us.
Meanwhile, quarterback John Wolford continues to set new marks for the Demon Deacons with his hot start through three games. He’s the first player in school history to pass for a touchdown and run for a score in three consecutive games.
“I certainly think John probably could have done this in the past. I don’t know if we had surrounded him with the players that he has now,” Clawson said. “But the fact that we’ve done that, and now he has a little bit more time to throw the ball, guys are getting open a little quicker, it certainly allows him to play better and execute better, not have to force as many things.”
Starting with the Mountaineers, Wake Forest will hit the road for five of its next seven games. Each of the Demon Deacons’ next four opponents won a bowl game last season.
ECU (0-3) at UConn (1-1)
The Pirates gave up 64 points in their loss against Virginia Tech last week to continue their abysmal start to the season.
ECU will start Thomas Sirk at quarterback against UConn on Sunday to start American Athletic Conference play. With a look at the rest of ECU’s schedule, the game against the Huskies may be the Pirates’ best chance to earn a victory this season.
ECU earned a 41-3 win over UConn last season in Greenville.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.