Florida State (6–1, 4–0 ACC) at NC State (5–2, 2–1 ACC), Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
This matchup is one of the most important games in the ACC so far this season, because the winner will gain the inside track to the Atlantic Division championship.
That’s right where first-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher wants to be. Fisher is off to a great start in conference play, becoming just the fifth coach to get a win in his first four ACC games. The Seminoles are undefeated after four league games for the first time since 2004 and the 11th time since they joined the ACC in 1992. It should be noted that Florida State went on to earn at least a share of the conference title in each of the previous 10 instances.
The Seminoles bring a five-game winning streak to Carter-Finley Stadium. The key question facing them is the health of quarterback Christian Ponder, who spent the open date last week trying to get his right elbow healthy. A ruptured bursa sac contributed to Ponder’s three interceptions in FSU’s last game, a 24–19 win over Boston College, and he can’t afford a repeat against the Wolfpack.
Ponder says he is healthy, and it’s up to Florida State’s highly touted offensive line to keep him that way. That position group will undergo a personnel change this week, with redshirt freshman guard Bryan Stork making his first career start in place of David Spurlock (concussion). The good news for Ponder is that he isn’t counted on to do everything for Florida State’s offense. Led by Chris Thompson’s eye-popping 7.7 yards per carry, the Seminoles enter this game third in the ACC in rushing (211.7 yards per game).
NC State features a star quarterback of its own in Russell Wilson, who ranks fourth in the country in total offense (332.0 ypg) while leading an attack that averages an ACC-best 448.9 total yards per game. The key for the Wolfpack against Florida State’s defense, which leads the nation in sacks (4.29 per game), is pass protection. Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in the past three games, and he’ll have a difficult time bucking that trend if he’s running for his life all night.
Clemson (4–3, 2–2 ACC) at Boston College (2–5, 0–4 ACC), Saturday, noon ET
Clemson has turned around what was becoming a disappointing season to fight its way into contention in the Atlantic Division. Boston College? Not so much.
The Eagles, who lost to Maryland 24–21 last week, have dropped five consecutive games since their 2–0 start. If that weren’t bad enough, they have to try to stop the skid this week at far less than full strength on defense. Defensive end Alex Albright, the team leader in sacks and tackles for a loss, was lost for the season last week with a fractured fibula. Safety Wes Davis suffered a neck injury that required hospitalization, and cornerback DeLeon Gause left the game with a knee injury that has put his status for this week’s game in doubt.
That’s a tough way to take on the Tigers, who have won two games in a row since their three-game losing streak. Tailback Andre Ellington has been the driving force, rushing for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns in a 27–13 victory over Georgia Tech last week. Ellington, who also caught a touchdown pass in that game, will take aim at a Boston College defense that ranks fourth in the country against the run (83.6 yards per game).
Given BC’s injury woes in the secondary and BC’s success against the run — linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the nation in tackles (13.9 per game) — Clemson might try to jump-start its passing game. The Tigers have struggled much of the season with their aerial attack, but quarterback Kyle Parker is starting to develop a nice rapport with young wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown. Plus, Parker has helped engineer an offense that has gone three consecutive games without committing a turnover.
On the other side, Boston College shuffled its offensive line last week with the return of Thomas Claiborne, and tailback Montel Harris was the beneficiary. Nate Richman, who moved from guard to center this season, went back to his old spot at left guard. Mark Spinney shifted from guard to center, and Claiborne took over at right guard. Harris, the ACC’s leading rusher (99.1 ypg), ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland to help keep the pressure off true freshman quarterback Chase Rettig. The Eagles need a similar performance from Harris this week because Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who leads the nation in sacks (1.43 per game) and tackles for loss (2.50 per game), is a terror in third-and-long situations.
Miami (5-2, 3-1 ACC) at Virginia (3-4, 0-3 ACC), Saturday, noon ET
Miami is seeking its first Coastal Division title since it joined the ACC. Virginia is seeking its first ACC victory in more than a calendar year. The stakes are as different for each team as the talent on each sideline.
The Hurricanes, coming off a 33–10 victory over North Carolina in which they scored the game’s final 30 points, appear to have gotten back on track after their 45–17 loss to Florida State on Oct. 9. While quarterback Jacory Harris and coach Randy Shannon get most of the attention from fans and media — and much of it has been negative — Miami’s defense quietly has put together a solid season.
The Hurricanes have been especially tough against the pass, benefiting from the consistent pressure the defensive line has generated. Miami is second nationally in sacks (3.57 per game) and tackles for loss (9.29 per game), which has helped the team lead the country in opponents’ passing efficiency (87.7 rating) while allowing the sixth-fewest passing yards (ACC-best 149.1 per game).
Virginia, which rolled past Eastern Michigan 48–21 last week, will receive a boost this week as it tries to slow Miami’s pass rush. Landon Bradley, who started the first five games at left tackle before breaking his right hand, is healthy enough to return to the lineup. With Bradley back, Oday Aboushi can return to his original position at right tackle and true freshman Morgan Moses can go back to right guard.
Defensively, the Cavaliers have continued to battle without the services of senior cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who has played sparingly this season and has missed almost all of the last two games with a right knee injury. Dowling’s status for this week is unknown, but Devin Wallace has been solid in six starts in Dowling’s place.
The same can’t be said for Virginia’s run defense, which is allowing an ACC-worst 211.4 yards per game. The Cavaliers have their hands full this week against Miami tailback Damien Berry, who has rushed for at least 100 yards in four consecutive games.
Duke (1–6) at Navy (5–2), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Duke has made big strides as a program under coach David Cutcliffe, but the progress has not produced positive results on the field this season. The Blue Devils, who lost 44–7 at Virginia Tech last week, hit the road for this game having suffered six consecutive losses. It’s their longest losing streak in a single season since the 2007 Duke team lost its last nine games en route to a 1–11 season.
Navy, meanwhile, enters this game flying high. The Midshipmen, who already have played ACC members Maryland (17–14 loss) and Wake Forest (28–27 win) this season, are fresh off a 35–17 demolition of Notre Dame. They feature a run-heavy, option-based offense that is ninth nationally in rushing (274.4 yards per game) but just 118th out of 120 teams in terms of passing (104.0 ypg).
The Blue Devils must find a way to do what Notre Dame couldn’t: Force the Midshipmen into obvious passing situations. Duke has struggled on defense all season, so that task won’t be an easy one. In addition to allowing an ACC-worst 38.7 points per game, the Blue Devils rank among the nation’s bottom 15 teams in rushing yards allowed (203.4 per game) and total yards allowed (442.6 per game).
Duke faced an offensive attack similar to Navy’s last month when it played host to Army in a game the Black Knights dominated 35–21. Turnovers killed the Blue Devils that day, a trend that has carried through for most of the season.
Wake Forest (2–5, 1–3 ACC) at Maryland (5–2, 2–1 ACC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Maryland needs one more win to become eligible for a bowl game, but Ralph Friedgen’s team has even bigger goals in mind. The Terrapins, who went 2–10 last season while winning just one game in conference play, have put themselves in contention in the Atlantic Division.
Wake Forest, meanwhile, has no such momentum. The Demon Deacons have suffered five consecutive losses since opening the season 2–0, and they had a week off to make some corrections after getting blown out at Virginia Tech 52–21 on Oct. 16. Many of the mistakes have occurred on defense, where Wake Forest ranks among the nation’s worst 10 teams in points allowed (37.7 per game), rushing yards allowed (211.0 per game) and total yards allowed (ACC-worst 454.4 per game).
For the second week in a row, Maryland will play a game featuring two freshman starting quarterbacks. Danny O’Brien threw for 179 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Terrapins past Chase Rettig and Boston College 24–21 last week, and this week O’Brien will go head to head with Tanner Price. The Terrapins got shocking news last week when starting right tackle Pete DeSouza suffered fractures in both legs in a traffic accident less than 48 hours before kickoff, but they have had some time this week to make adjustments up front.
On the other side, Wake Forest might have a rising star in freshman tailback Josh Harris, who rushed for 241 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia Tech in the first start of his career.
William & Mary (6–1) at North Carolina (4–3), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Rarely does a game featuring team from a BCS conference against a team from the Football Championship Subdivision offer so many interesting story lines.
For one, North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop is tasked with dialing up the correct play against William & Mary defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, his brother. Then there’s the case of William & Mary quarterback Mike Paulus, who might see action against the team he left last season. And then there’s the game itself, which features a very capable underdog against a depleted favorite.
The Tar Heels, who are 12–0–2 all time against the Tribe, had better not take this game lightly. William & Mary heads to Chapel Hill with a six-game winning streak and the nation’s No. 3 ranking among FCS teams after a 17–16 win last week over Delaware.
Mike Callahan, who had missed two games with a separated shoulder, returned in relief of Paulus to complete 7 of 10 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in the victory.
Paulus, who was a headliner of UNC coach Butch Davis’ first recruiting class, will likely will be the backup quarterback this week against his former teammates, one of whom will make his season debut.
All-ACC cornerback Kendric Burney, who missed UNC’s first seven games as a result of the NCAA and university investigations into the program, has been cleared to return.
That’s great news for the Tar Heels, who played without starting safety Da’Norris Searcy (concussion) and cornerbacks Mywan Jackson (groin) and LeCount Fantroy (shoulder) for much of last week’s 33-10 loss at Miami.