The ACC football race is one of the most intriguing in the major conferences—perhaps no other league has as many varied outcomes that can realistically happen in November. This conference still has a longshot chance at getting a team in a national title game and earning an at-large spot in one of the BCS bowls. That’s one extreme. The other is that probation and a weak division could give them an incredibly weak champion to send to the Orange Bowl, where the league goes if its champ isn’t in the top two nationally. There are five teams with a realistic chance at the conference championship. Let’s break them down….
Florida State (8-1, 5-1): The Seminoles are the chalk pick to win the league and who I’ve got penciled in for the Orange Bowl in the BCS bowl projections we did here earlier this week. Florida State has overcome a lot to reach this point. They lost All-American defensive back Greg Reid in the preseason. They lost All-American defensive end Brandon Jenkins in early September. Now they’ve lost leading rusher Chris Thompson to a season-ending knee injury.
But the defense has continued to play at an extremely high level and E.J. Manuel has made the leap to being a conference championship-quality quarterback—the once-erratic passer has completed 70 percent of his throws, is averaging over 14 yards per pass and has a 16-4 TD/INT ratio. His team won its signature game over Clemson and has also beaten Coastal Division contenders Miami and Duke.
Florida State did get a break in that they did not draw North Carolina, the probation team who looks like the best in the Coastal and they lost a one-point game at N.C. State. But if November chaos happens in the BCS—and with five weeks of football to go, every college football fan that’s paid attention for at least the last ten years should know how possible that is—the ‘Noles could have a shot to move up.
They’ve got chances to impress with a Thursday night game at Virginia Tech next week, the regular season finale against Florida and presumably the ACC Championship Game. They just need Notre Dame and Oregon to lose games to USC and Kansas State to trip up somewhere, and then all bets are off when it comes to the one-loss teams.
Clemson (7-1, 4-1): The Tigers are hoping for some November chaos of their own, but because of their head-to-head loss at Florida State in September, it needs to start with hoping FSU gets upset by Virginia Tech or Maryland, and paves Clemson’s way to the Atlantic Division title. But even if the Tigers can’t win the ACC, they can still win out and be a prime choice for an at-large bid to the BCS.
Clemson’s offense has been as explosive as advertised. While Tajh Boyd has likely been outmaneuvered by Manuel for conference MVP that’s more about the excellence of the latter than any flaw on the part of the Clemson quarterback. Boyd is completing 68 percent of his passes at better than 13 yards per attempt and has a 20-6 TD/INT ratio.
The early season suspension of receiver Sammy Watkins set him back personally, but not the team, as DeAndre Hopkins simply stepped up and is one of the nation’s most productive wideouts. Andre Ellington is a talented and explosive running back, also capable of catching passes out of the backfield if need be, though the team has not used him in that role as often as I thought they might.
The schedule won’t be easy. Clemson goes to improved Duke on Saturday, then comes home for Maryland, followed a tough home date with N.C. State. If they win those they give themselves a chance if Florida State stumbles in ACC play. And if nothing else, it sets up a Clemson-South Carolina battle in Death Valley with a possible at-large spot in the BCS (either Fiesta or Sugar) at stake.
N.C. State is also in the Atlantic Division, but because the scope of this post is focused strictly on teams with a title shot, we need to exclude them for the time being, as they’d need to beat Clemson and have Virginia Tech beat Florida State, in which case N.C. State takes the tiebreaker. It’s a longshot. But the Wolfpack are just in the wrong division and if they have a realistic shot at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, this conference’s first post-BCS bowl prize if they beat Clemson.
Miami (4-4, 3-2): Now we move to the Atlantic Division side and things start to get ugly. Miami has been embarrassed in non-conference forays against Kansas State and Notre Dame, losing by a combined 98-20 and demonstrating what a huge gap there is in this division and the national elite. The Hurricanes have also lost more competitive games to North Carolina and Florida State, and do have a nice win over N.C. State, the one instance where a Coastal team won a significant game over an Atlantic foe.
Stephen Morris, the junior quarterback, has made nice progress this season, but he hasn’t gotten a ton of help from the running game and the rush defense has been absolutely porous. The good news for the ‘Canes? Virginia Tech isn’t running the ball well and Miami gets the Hokies at home on Thursday. If they win this game and Clemson takes care of Duke, Miami breaks out of a three-way tie in the loss column and into first place. Miami-Duke is the season finale in Durham and the Blue Devils don’t run the ball well either.
Duke (6-3, 3-2): The Blue Devils are the one Coastal contender to beat fellow division traveler North Carolina, the team that can’t win it. Duke also led Virginia Tech 20-0 early in their game a couple weeks ago. That’s the good news. The bad news? When it gets ugly, it spirals out of control. Losses to Stanford and Florida State were by a combined 98-20. And that Tech game? The Hokies dropped the last 41 points on the Blue Devils to win going away.
Duke can still throw the ball very well, with senior quarterback Sean Renfree at the helm and his three-receiver set as good as any in the conference. It feels like Connor Vernon’s been putting up big numbers at Duke longer than Mason Plumlee on the basketball team. Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott keep secondaries honest and could be #1 targets at a lot of schools.
The question is going to be whether the Blue Devils can force every opponents like Georgia Tech and Miami into their style of play, or if they’ll be capable of winning a game where they have to run. In the upset of North Carolina, Josh Snead had a surprisingly good day running the ball. The Dookies need to see more of that if they’re going to be competitive against Clemson and then in the final two games. Please note that so long as they just beat Georgia Tech and Miami, they would only need one Virginia Tech defeat to win the division.
Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2): Frank Beamer’s team hasn’t been able to run the ball consistently this year. Given they replaced nine defensive starters that can’t be a huge surprise. But they haven’t been able to stop anyone. With a renowned coordinator in Bud Foster and a veteran group back, this was supposed to be the unit that carried the team. Instead it’s let them down in non-conference losses to Pitt and Cincinnati, and then ACC defeats against Clemson and North Carolina where they gave up 86 points.
Logan Thomas is a good sophomore quarterback, but too much pressure has been placed on him. Nonetheless, the Hokies control their destiny. The problem is that destiny requires them to beat Miami on the road, Florida State at home, then take care of business on the road against Boston College and at home against Virginia. When you’re playing as inconsistently as Beamer’s team is, even “take care of business” games are anything but casual.
As mentioned a few times in this article, North Carolina is on probation and ineligible, which is unfortunate, because they are probably the best team in the Coastal. They’ve won two of three against the main division rivals, losing only to Duke. They’ve beaten N.C. State on the other side of the division.
The Tar Heels at 6-3 close with games against Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia and sweeping those games would have clinched a division crown. They’d have been a credible 9-3 team to play for the league title on December 1. As it is, we’ll have to see if they can call up Penn State or Ohio State and schedule a Probation Bowl.
November promises to be an exciting time in the ACC. We could have Florida State playing for the national title and Clemson in a major bowl. Or we could just have one team in a big bowl and that be Duke in the Orange. Or it could settle somewhere in between. Whichever way it falls, this conference is worth paying attention to down the stretch.