With the final month of the season almost here, every week is a crucial one to sort out the pecking order in the ACC. The Coastal Division is wide open, with Duke currently leading the standings with a 3-1 record. Miami and Virginia Tech have a bye week, which makes Saturday's game for the Blue Devils against Florida State even more important. Duke is a heavy underdog and a loss to the Seminoles would leave the top three contenders with two losses in conference play. The game of the week has to be the battle for bragging rights in North Carolina, as the Tar Heels and Wolfpack meet on Saturday. NC State has won five in a row in this series, but North Carolina is hungry to end that losing streak this season.
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How will Florida State replace Chris Thompson?
Chris Thompson was one of the ACC’s best stories through the first half of the season, as he returned from a serious back injury last year to rank as one of the conference’s leading rushers. Unfortunately for Thompson and Florida State, he suffered an ACL tear against Miami and is out for the rest of the year. While losing Thompson is a blow to the rushing attack, the Seminoles have depth in the backfield. Sophomore Devonta Freeman has rushed for 70 yards in back-to-back games, while James Wilder Jr. has 369 yards and seven touchdowns this year. There’s no doubt Florida State will miss Thompson’s all-around ability and leadership. However, with Freeman, Wilder and quarterback EJ Manuel picking up the slack on the ground, the Seminoles’ rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat.
Can North Carolina end a five-game losing streak to NC State?
With the Tar Heels banned from postseason play, there’s no doubt this matchup against their in-state rival is one of the games they circled on the calendar at the beginning of the season. North Carolina has lost five straight matchups to the Wolfpack, including a 13-0 defeat in Raleigh last season. New coach Larry Fedora knows the importance of this game and decorated the player’s locker room in NC State colors to add extra emphasis to Saturday’s matchup. In order for the Tar Heels to snap the losing streak, they have to find a way to slow down Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon. North Carolina ranks 11th in conference play in pass defense and has generated only four sacks against ACC opponents. That type of defensive effort won’t be enough to win on Saturday, especially with Glennon averaging 335.3 passing yards a game in his last three contests. There’s no shortage of firepower on North Carolina’s offense, but the only way North Carolina snaps the losing streak to NC State has to come in the form of better defense.
Is this the year Duke beats Florida State?
Considering the Blue Devils have already ended a streak of 16 seasons with a losing record, why not break another mark? Even though it’s clear Duke is a much-improved team under David Cutcliffe, winning in Tallahassee is a difficult assignment. The Blue Devils have lost all 17 meetings against Florida State and only one game has been decided by less than 20 points. One of the key reasons for Duke’s success this year has been an improved rushing attack and a defense that is generating 2.4 sacks a game. Establishing a ground game against Florida State won’t be easy, as the Seminoles rank No. 2 nationally in rush defense. If the Blue Devils can’t establish any balance on offense, they will have no shot at winning this game. When Duke’s defense is on the field, it has to find a way slow down a Florida State offense averaging 520.1 yards per game. Although the Blue Devils are on the right track, winning in Tallahassee is simply too much to ask in 2012.
Will Georgia Tech struggle to establish its rushing attack?
The Yellow Jackets step out of conference play for an intriguing matchup against BYU this Saturday. The Cougars have been stingy on defense all season, as only one opponent has managed to score more than 24 points. BYU also ranks eighth nationally against the run and is allowing just 2.9 yards per carry. One of the key reasons for the Cougars’ success against the run is an active group of linebackers, led by standout Kyle Van Noy. While the Cougars have been tough to run against all season, they have not played an option team since playing Air Force on Sept. 11, 2010. Preparing for an option offense late in the season is no easy task, which should allow Georgia Tech to have a slight advantage on Saturday. However, BYU’s defensive front has 60 tackles for a loss this season and needs to force the Yellow Jackets into third-and-long situations. While there’s no question Georgia Tech has to run the ball well to win, quarterbacks Tevin Washington and Vad Lee also have to make timely throws to keep the defense off balance. Considering BYU has struggled with turnovers this year, it’s also important for the Yellow Jackets to not make any mistakes and give the Cougars’ offense a short field to work with.
NC State’s run defense vs. Giovani Bernard
Even though North Carolina and NC State rank in the top 30 nationally of scoring defense, there should be no shortage of points on Saturday. NC State has won the last five matchups in this series, but with North Carolina banned from postseason play, the players likely consider this matchup their bowl game for 2012. If the Wolfpack expect to extend their winning streak over the Tar Heels, they have to slow down Giovani Bernard. The sophomore is averaging 194 yards per game in his last three contests but managed only 47 yards on 18 attempts against NC State last year. The Wolfpack has allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers in its last two ACC games but has held conference opponents to only three rushing scores in 2012. Not only is Bernard one of the nation’s best backs, but he will be running behind one of college football’s top offensive lines. The battle in the trenches will be crucial to the outcome of this game. If North Carolina establishes Bernard, it should open up more passing opportunities for quarterback Bryn Renner. If the Wolfpack shut down Bernard, the Tar Heels will have an uphill battle to knock off their in-state rival.
What is Maryland’s plan at quarterback?
The Terrapins suffered another blow to their quarterback depth last week, as true freshman Perry Hills was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Losing Hills is a significant setback to a team that already lost No. 1 quarterback C.J. Brown in the preseason due to a knee injury. With Hills sidelined for the year, sophomore Devin Burns and true freshman Caleb Rowe were expected to share snaps. Burns – a converted wide receiver – threw for 47 yards and rushed for 50 yards and one score last week. However, Burns was ruled out for the year on Thursday night, leaving Rowe as Maryland's only scholarship quarterback. Rowe completed both of his passes for 50 yards last Saturday and nearly led the Terrapins to a game-winning field goal. Considering Maryland has struggled to establish its ground attack all year, Burns’ presence should help spark the rushing game. However, the offense also needs more help from running backs Wes Brown, Albert Reid and Justus Pickett. With Rowe taking over, it’s also important for the defense to continue playing at its current pace and limit opposing teams to around 300 yards a game.
Last chance at a win for Boston College this year?
With a schedule that features games at Wake Forest and NC State, along with home dates against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, Saturday’s matchup against Maryland is probably Boston College’s best shot at a win the rest of the season. The Eagles are riding a five-game losing streak and have lost their last three ACC games by at least 14 points. A major culprit of the struggles has been the play of the defense. Boston College ranks 119th nationally against the run and 117th in total defense. Considering Maryland has struggled on offense most of the season and lost its starting quarterback last week, the Eagles need to jump out to an early lead and put pressure on two inexperienced passers. Coach Frank Spaziani has little chance to retain his job next year, but this team needs to find something over the last five games to build on for 2013.
Week 9 ACC Predictions
Week 9 ACC Games
Clemson at Wake Forest
NC State at North Carolina
NC State 31-27
Maryland at Boston College
BYU at Georgia Tech
Ga. Tech 35-10
Ga. Tech 31-28
Ga. Tech 27-24
Ga. Tech 28-20
Duke at Florida State
Florida State 28-17
Florida State 34-20
Florida State 38-17
Florida State 38-20
by Steven Lassan
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