After spending most of the year out of the spotlight with few marquee matchups, the national focus in college football for Week 8 is in the ACC.
Clemson-Florida State is a matchup of two top-five teams, with the winner of this game staying alive in the national title picture. The Tigers have won five in a row at home over the Seminoles, but under coach Jimbo Fisher, the talent level is on the rise in Tallahassee, and Florida State won 49-37 over Clemson last season.
Outside of the huge matchup in Death Valley, Miami-North Carolina on Thursday night is an intriguing matchup. The Tar Heels won at Miami last season but are off to a 1-4 start this year.
Syracuse-Georgia Tech and Duke-Virginia are huge for bowl positioning, while Maryland looks to snap a three-game losing streak at Wake Forest. Pittsburgh steps out of conference for a matchup against Old Dominion.
ACC Week 8 Game Power Rankings
1. Florida State (-3) at Clemson (8 ET, ABC)
This showdown in Death Valley is arguably the biggest game in ACC history. Clemson and Florida State are ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll, have Heisman Trophy contenders (Jameis Winston and Tajh Boyd), and both programs are squarely in the national title picture. The winner of this game stays alive for the BCS Championship, while the loser is (most likely) eliminated. The Tigers have won five in a row in Death Valley over the Seminoles, but Florida State won 49-37 last season and has claimed three out of the last five meetings. The gap between these two programs is very narrow this year. Clemson could be slightly more battle-tested, especially with a win over Georgia in the season opener. But Florida State has been just as impressive, beating Pittsburgh 41-13 on the road in the opener and beating a solid Maryland 63-0 on Oct. 5. There’s no question Winston and Boyd will make plays in this game, so it’s up to the other units to decide this game. Will another receiver outside of Sammy Watkins step up for Clemson? Will Florida State’s offensive line block the Tigers’ defensive front? Clemson has been slightly better in the turnover department (+1.5), but Florida State isn’t far behind (0.80). The Tigers are aggressive on defense, recording 61 tackles for a loss in six games. However, Clemson’s defense has struggled against the run (64th nationally, and Florida State’s rushing attack is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Homefield advantage is a huge boost for the Tigers. But in terms of personnel and matchups, a slight edge goes to the Seminoles.
2. Miami (-8.5) at North Carolina (Thursday, 7:45 ET, ESPN)
After a disappointing 1-4 start, the bye week and a Thursday night matchup against Miami couldn’t have come at a better time for North Carolina. The Tar Heels have played a tough schedule, but coach Larry Fedora’s team hasn’t emerged as the Coastal Division title contender some expected. Both sides of the ball share blame, especially a defense that ranks last in the ACC in yards allowed (435.8). With running back Giovani Bernard in the NFL, the rushing attack has been sluggish for North Carolina, but true freshman T.J. Logan could provide a spark after rushing for 25 yards on five attempts in his first collegiate appearance (Virginia Tech). And quarterback Bryn Renner is expected to return to the lineup after missing the game against the Hokies with an ankle injury. Backup Marquise Williams played well in relief and could see time in this matchup. Miami is a balanced offense (274.8 passing, 213.8 rushing) and averages 7.8 yards per play this season. The bye week should allow quarterback Stephen Morris to get healthy after struggling with an ankle injury against Georgia Tech. Unless North Carolina’s defense made significant progress over the bye week, the Hurricanes should be able to move the ball with ease on Thursday night.
3. Syracuse (+7) at Georgia Tech (12:30 ET, ACC Network)
Is Saturday’s meeting in Atlanta a case of teams headed in opposite directions? Syracuse has won three out of its last four games, including a 24-10 victory at NC State last Saturday. The Orange seems to be finding an identity on offense, recording 300 rushing yards in back-to-back games. But the passing attack is clearly a work in progress. Quarterback Terrel Hunt has thrown for just 126 yards and five interceptions in his last two games. Georgia Tech has lost three consecutive games but all to quality opponents. As expected, the Yellow Jackets lead the ACC in rushing (290.3 ypg), but like Syracuse, have struggled with the forward pass. Quarterback Vad Lee started the year 22 of 39 for 418 yards and seven scores. However, the sophomore is just 19 of 57 for 340 yards and four interceptions in his last three games. Lee has also struggled to execute the option at times and has lost three fumbles in 2013. Considering how both teams have struggled through the air, whichever team wins the battle up front and the turnover battle should emerge with the victory. In conference play, Syracuse ranks seventh in the ACC against the run, while Georgia Tech is sixth. Points could be at a premium with this battle of run-first teams.
4. Duke (+2.5) at Virginia (3:30 ET, RSN)
This matchup won’t draw much national attention, but within the ACC, this is a key game for both Duke and Virginia. The Blue Devils swept their non-conference schedule and need two wins to go bowling for the second consecutive season. The Cavaliers are reeling with three consecutive losses and need a win to keep their fading bowl hopes alive. Duke has won four out of the last five in this series, including a 42-17 victory in Durham last year. The Blue Devils got a spark on offense last week, as quarterback Anthony Boone returned from a collarbone injury and threw for 295 yards and three scores against Navy. But Boone’s return wasn’t the only storyline, as the Blue Devils’ defense held the Midshipmen to just seven points. Virginia’s offense has struggled through its first six games, but even after its performance against Navy last week, Duke ranks 11th in the ACC in yards allowed. The Blue Devils have been susceptible to the run, which should allow Cavaliers’ running back Kevin Parks to have a shot at his third straight 100-yard game. Considering there’s not much separation between these two teams, the turnover battle will be crucial. Virginia ranks last in the ACC with 14 lost turnovers, while Duke is even in the turnover margin in 2013.
5. Maryland (-6.5) at Wake Forest (3:30 ET, ESPNU)
Maryland’s farewell tour through the ACC continues in Winston-Salem this Saturday, a place where the Terrapins have struggled in recent years. Maryland is 0-3 in its last three trips to Wake Forest and has won only one ACC road game under coach Randy Edsall. The Demon Deacons found a spark on offense in its win over NC State on Oct. 5, as quarterback Tanner Price threw for 268 yards and three scores and added 82 yards and one touchdown on the ground. With a struggling offensive line and rushing attack, Price and receiver Michael Campanaro have to deliver big performances. Campanaro will test a Maryland secondary without its two starting cornerbacks from the preseason, and the pass rush took a hit this week, as linebacker Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil was lost for the year. Even with Cudjoe-Virgil gone, the Terrapins plan to blitz Price and test an offensive line that has allowed 12 sacks this season. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown is expected to start after missing last week’s game against Virginia with a concussion. And receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long will test a Wake Forest secondary allowing 262.3 yards per game in conference play.
6. Old Dominion at Pittsburgh (7 ET, RSN)
In a slight scheduling quirk, Pittsburgh steps out of conference for its next two games. Saturday’s matchup against Old Dominion will be the first meeting between these two programs, and this contest is a chance for the Panthers to rebound after a 19-9 loss against Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was dominated last week, as quarterback Tom Savage was sacked eight times. If you remove Savage’s -29 rushing yards against the Hokies, the Panthers averaged just 2.0 yards per carry. The training room was busy this week in Pittsburgh, with running back James Conner and receiver Devin Street nursing shoulder injuries from last week’s game. The status of both players is uncertain for Saturday’s contest, but this is a game the Panthers could afford to allow Street and Conner to sit if necessary. The Monarchs led all FCS teams in total offense last season, averaging 548.3 yards per game. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke suffered a concussion on Oct. 5 against Liberty but is expected to return to the lineup on Saturday. Pittsburgh’s defense has struggled this season (367.6 ypg), so the Monarchs could have some success moving the ball. However, Old Dominion’s offensive line will have its hands full trying to block defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has been one of the ACC’s top defenders in the first half of the season. After a physical game against Virginia Tech last Saturday, the Panthers may start slow but should pull away after halftime.
ACC Week 8 Pivotal Players
Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
Check out Athlon's first-half awards, along with second-half predictions for every ACC team.
There’s no doubt teammate Sammy Watkins is one of the best receivers in the nation. But if Clemson is going to win on Saturday night, Bryant could hold the keys to the offense. The talented, but inconsistent receiver has 17 catches for 316 yards and three scores this year. Florida State’s secondary is loaded with talent and is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.5 percent of their throws, while holding offenses to 10.8 yards per completion. The Seminoles could devote some extra attention to stopping Watkins, so it’s up to Bryant to give Clemson a solid No. 2 option.
Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
The 6-foot-6 junior is on the radar for NFL scouts, but Erving has been inconsistent at times. Saturday night should be a good showcase game for Erving, as he will be matched up against Clemson ends Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley. That duo has combined for 18 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks this year. If Erving keeps Beasley and Crawford away from quarterback Jameis Winston, Florida State is going to have its way with the Tigers’ secondary.
Adam Gotsis, DT, Georgia Tech
Gotsis is coming off a solid performance against BYU, recording five tackles (four for a loss) and two sacks. The sophomore played in all 12 games last season but recorded only five tackles and one sack. The Australian has developed into a solid interior option for the Yellow Jackets, and his emergence will be crucial on Saturday against Syracuse. The Orange has recorded at least 300 rushing yards in back-to-back games. Slowing down Jerome Smith, Prince Tyson-Gulley and quarterback Terrel Hunt starts up front, and Georgia Tech needs a big performance from Gotsis.
Kevin Parks, RB, Virginia
What’s the best medicine for a struggling quarterback? A good running game. The Cavaliers have lost four out of their last five games, but the offense has showed signs of life in the last two contests, scoring at least 26 points in those games. Quarterback David Watford needs to play better, but Virginia’s offense can lean on Parks against Duke this week. The junior has back-to-back 100-yard games and is on pace to set a career high in overall yardage this year. Duke ranks 13th in conference-only games against the run.
Tanner Price, QB, Wake Forest
Quarterback play is always under the microscope or pivotal for each team on Saturday. However, with a struggling offensive line and rushing attack, Price is even more valuable to his offense. The senior is coming off his most complete performance of the year, throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 82 yards and one score on 18 attempts. The Demon Deacons need a similar effort on Saturday, if they want to win their fourth game in a row against Maryland in Winston-Salem.
ACC Week 8 Predictions
Miami (-8.5) at UNC
Syracuse (+7) at Ga. Tech
Ga. Tech 24-14
Ga. Tech 31-20
Ga. Tech 27-20
Ga. Tech 34-24
Duke (+2.5) at UVA
Maryland (-6.5) at Wake
Old Dominion (NL) at Pittsburgh
FSU (-3) at Clemson