What a week in the ACC. The leadership of both divisions changed hands, two teams lost stars to injury and the Victory Bell got a new coat of paint. This week’s action features a Thursday night national broadcast, an out-of-conference battle, and the two division leaders facing off against each other. As we prepare for another wild week of Atlantic Coast Conference football, let’s take a run around the conference and see what to expect from Week 9’s slate of games.
Top of the Ratings
Duke (6-2, 3-1) at #11 Florida State (7-1, 4-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Last week’s episode: Duke 33, North Carolina 30; Florida State 33, Miami 20
Program guide: Jamison Crowder’s touchdown grab with 19 seconds remaining last week did so much more than just padding his and quarterback Sean Renfree’s stats (Renfree, by the way, became just the 20th quarterback in ACC history to throw for over 8,000 yards in his career in last week’s game). That one catch secured Duke’s first Victory Bell win over North Carolina since 2003, as well as Duke’s first home victory over the Tar Heels since 1998. The Blue Devils became bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994 with that reception. Finally, that touchdown gave David Cutcliffe his 21st victory in his four-plus seasons at Duke. The previous 12 full years of Duke football saw only 19 total victories.
Fresh from showing the world — present company included — their new found resilience, the Blue Devils hit the road to Doak Campbell Stadium to take on a Seminole team that just lost their leading rusher, Chris Thompson, to a season-ending injury. That may sound like music to the ears of Duke’s middle-of-the-road rush defense (the Blue Devils are ranked 60th of 124 FBS teams against the run, allowing just over 153 yards on the ground per game), but Duke’s offense will be the key for any hopes of a Duke victory in Tallahassee.
We have mentioned Renfree and Crowder, but be sure not to overlook receiver Conner Vernon. Duke’s go-to threat leads the ACC in career receptions with 249, while he is fifth on the all-time list in receiving yards (3,424). His six catches and 124 yards in last week’s contest led the Blue Devils. Running back Josh Snead (15 carries, 99 yards last week) also broke through to provide another offensive threat, though he will find the sledding considerably tougher against a Florida State defense that allows just 69 rushing yards per game. If Duke cannot establish a ground game, they will likely look to Snead, fellow running backs Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan and slot receiver Desmond Scott in short patterns and seam routes to get more one-on-one matchups.
Florida State withstood some early punches from rival Miami last week, falling behind 10-0 before finally putting away the Hurricanes with a 17-point fourth quarter. Quarterback EJ Manuel is on pace for the highest single-season completion percentage in the history of the conference, and his 21-for-31 performance for 229 yards last week did no harm to that pursuit. Seminole running back Chris Thompson has been declared out for the remainder of the season with an injury, leaving Jimbo Fisher to turn to a tandem of Devonta Freeman (10 carries, 70 yards, 2 TD last week) and James Wilder (8 carries, 49 yards, 1 TD). We mentioned Duke’s rush defense earlier, and their pass defense is no better, allowing just under 243.5 yards per game through the air. If Duke does not play with the same sense of urgency they displayed in last week’s final drive for this entire game, Manuel’s precision and the atmosphere in Doak Campbell may spell doom for the Devils.
Set Your DVR
#14 Clemson (6-1, 3-1) at Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3), Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Program guide: The Tigers roll into Winston-Salem off a 38-17 thrashing of Virginia Tech, despite some defensive struggles with maintaining outside contain and defending the center of the field in the first half. Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas rushed 21 times for 99 yards and a score, but struggled to throw against the Tiger defense. Thomas was picked off twice — both on high throws, and both by safety Jonathan Meeks — with one of those INTs resulting in a 74-yard touchdown return. The much-maligned Clemson pass defense contained Thomas for most of the day, allowing him to complete just 15-of-28 attempts for 207 yards and a touchdown. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of his defense, “They had a great performance. From the sidelines, I believe it was their best effort.”
Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd employed the zone read look for a lot of the day, himself scoring twice on 27 yards rushing. He was also an efficient 12-of-21 for 160 yards with a touchdown and a pick through the air. That efficiency will be a great benefit against a Wake Forest defense that allows 221 passing yards per game while struggling to defend the run, allowing 183-plus yards per game to opposing rushers. The Deacons could only muster 213 yards of offense themselves against a skidding Virginia team in a 16-10 victory last week, converting just 1-of-15 third downs in a somewhat balanced attack (105 yards rushing, 108 passing). If the Deacs are to move to 5-0 all-time in Thursday night ESPN games, running back Josh Harris (102 carries, 432 yards, four touchdowns) will have to help his club win the time of possession battle. Quarterback Tanner Price struggled against the ‘Hoos, as he has all year, completing just 7-of-19 passes for 102 yards. After seeing how Clemson locked down Logan Thomas last week, a tough task awaits Jim Grobe’s team under the lights at BB&T Field.
NC State (5-2, 2-1) at North Carolina (5-3, 2-2), 12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network
Program guide: The last time we saw Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack hit the field, they saw Brad Craddock’s last-second 33-yard attempt hit the upright to preserve a 20-18 NC State victory. Maryland lost the services of freshman quarterback Perry Hills to what we now know is a year-ending ACL injury, then mounted a furious rally on the final drive led by true freshman quarterback Caleb Rowe. Rowe was relieving Devin Burns, who had relieved Hills after his injury. State quarterback Mike Glennon was rescued from an up-and-down performance (23-for-47, 307 yards, two touchdowns) by that missed kick, which sent Maryland tumbling through the division standings. The Wolfpack now hold third place in the Atlantic Division, and they will look to build on their position by throwing the football. Carolina ranks 71st in the nation in pass defense, allowing 233.4 yards per game, and the Wolfpack seem to have consistent troubles establishing a ground game. Tom O’Brien’s team is 92nd in the nation in rushing offense, averaging just 130 yards per game.
North Carolina performed fine on offense last week, getting a 19-for-32 effort from Bryn Renner for 198 yards and two scores. Giovani Bernard continued his march through opposing ACC defenses, going for 143 yards on 24 carries, while adding a touchdown of his own. Indeed, the Tar Heels’ defense let them down. Duke compiled 510 yards in total offense last week in Durham, with 276 of those coming from the arm of Sean Renfree and the other 234 coming from what had, to that point, been a relatively punchless Duke rushing attack. Even after that game, Duke still only averages 126.5 rushing yards per contest, and had rushed for just 22 yards on 29 attempts the prior week against Virginia Tech. North Carolina State is primarily a passing team, but it may benefit them to try to shake Tony Creecy and Shadrach Thornton loose against the questionable Carolina run defense. This will be especially important if the Wolfpack can find no answers for Renner, Bernard and Erik Highsmith.
Maryland (4-3, 2-1) at Boston College (1-6, 0-4), 1:00 p.m., ESPN3/WatchESPN
Program guide: All you should need to know about this matchup is that it is not even airing on “conventional” television. For a conference with a television package like that of the ACC, this speaks to just how little interest this game should draw around the country. We mentioned Perry Hills’ injury a bit earlier in this preview, which forces backup quarterback Devin Burns into action. Burns will have to throw a bit more — he was just 3-for-4 for 47 yards after replacing Hills last week and was himself replaced by Caleb Rowe on the final drive — but will find himself in a little more comfortable place to get his first start. It will also help him to have weapons like freshman running back Wes Brown (25 carries, 121 yards, one touchdown) and receivers Marcus Leak, Stefon Diggs and Kevin Dorsey at his disposal. Burns also showed the capacity to be able to run last week, carrying 12 times for 50 yards and a score.
The Eagles, meanwhile, got throttled again last week, falling to Georgia Tech 37-17. The Eagle defense — despite the best efforts of linebacker Nick Clancy, who averages 12 tackles per game — gave up 563 yards of offense to the Ramblin’ Wreck. They also allowed Tech to amass a staggering 30 first downs. 391 of those yards came on the ground, and with Burns and Wes Brown in the Maryland backfield, BC can count on another steady diet of rushing plays heading their way on Saturday. Eagle quarterback Chase Rettig has the ability to throw his team out of an early hole, as he has had to do often this year. He completed 19-of-31 passes last week for 264 yards, with two scores and a pick. Rettig cannot do it alone, though, and the lack of big-time offensive weapons and the ineffective Eagle defense should be enough to send his team to 1-7 on the season. If you look at the Eagles’ remaining schedule, you’ll see there are no more Maine’s left for Frank Spaziani’s team.
BYU (4-4) at Georgia Tech (3-4), 3:00 p.m. ET, FSN (regional)
Program guide: The Jackets step outside the conference to take on a BYU team which almost did the unthinkable at Notre Dame last week. The Cougars locked down Tommy Rees in the passing game, as he went just 7-for-16 for 117 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Unfortunately for them, however, Notre Dame piled up two 100-yard rushers (Theo Reddick 143 yards, Cierre Wood 114) in the victory. This was somewhat out of character for BYU, as they allow only 93 yards per game to opposing rushers. Keep in mind, however, that in three games against ranked opponents (and, strangely, adding 115 yards against FCS-level Weber State), BYU has allowed 116 yards to Boise State, 118 yards to Oregon State and 270 to Notre Dame on the ground. Though Georgia Tech can pass, they will look to hammer BYU on the ground. Senior Jacket quarterback Tevin Washington has 33 career rushing touchdowns, placing him only two behind former fellow Tech signal-caller Joshua Nesbitt for the highest career ACC total.
BYU is without the services of offensive weapon Taysom Hill for the remainder of the year, so they will turn to quarterback Riley Nelson (23-of-36, 177 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) to try to throw through a defense that is still porous enough to have gotten defensive coordinator Al Groh fired. The Jackets fared better against Boston College last week, allowing only 296 yards (264 passing), but this is a considerable step up in competition. Boston College showed last week that opposing teams can still do some things in the passing game, and BYU would be wise to try to continue that trend at Grant Field.
Brian Wilmer is a contributor to FBSchedules.com. Follow him @sportsmatters.