ACC Preview: Wk 12

An Atlantic elimination game in College Park tops the ACC slate.

An Atlantic elimination game in College Park tops the ACC slate.

NC State (7-3, 4-2 ACC) at North Carolina (6-4, 3-3 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

It’s time for role reversal in the 100th edition of this rivalry game, with North Carolina trying to play the part of spoiler as effectively as NC State has in recent years. The Wolfpack have knocked off the Tar Heels three consecutive seasons, killing North Carolina’s division title chances in 2008 and sending UNC down the list in the ACC’s bowl pecking order last year.

Now the Tar Heels, already eliminated from contention in the Coastal Division, have a chance to keep the Wolfpack from winning a division title. N.C. State would clinch the Atlantic Division with victories in its last two games — this week and at Maryland in the regular-season finale — but its chances would take a big hit with a loss against North Carolina. In fact, a Wolfpack loss combined with a Florida State win over Maryland later Saturday night would send the Seminoles to the ACC championship game.

The key to this game is the turnover battle, which North Carolina can’t afford to lose if it hopes to give coach Butch Davis his first win against N.C. State. The Tar Heels have committed a total of six turnovers in their six victories this season, but they have turned over the ball 14 times in their four losses. Quarterback T.J. Yates tied a career high with four interceptions against Virginia Tech after throwing just four interceptions all season up to that point, and he will need to be sharper in the final home game of his career. Yates, who enters this game needing 288 passing yards to become UNC’s career leader in that category, could get a lift in the running game from tailback Shaun Draughn.

Draughn was limited by an ankle injury against the Hokies last week, but he should be healthy enough to play a larger role against the Wolfpack.

Regardless of Draughn’s status, the Tar Heels will have their hands full with an NC State defense that has allowed a total of 17 points in the last two weeks combined, its lowest total in back-to-back ACC games since 1982. Linebacker Nate Irving made a school-record eight tackles for loss last week in the Wolfpack’s 38-3 victory over Wake Forest, and he ranks third in the nation in that category (1.85 TFL per game) this season.

Offensively, N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson needs a big performance in order to push Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor for the ACC’s Offensive Player of the Year award.

Virginia (4-6, 1-5 ACC) at Boston College (5-5, 3-4 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

Virginia saw its bowl hopes die last week with a 42–23 loss to Maryland, but Boston College remains alive in its drive for the postseason. The Eagles, who have followed up a five-game losing streak with three consecutive wins, need one more victory to become bowl-eligible for the 12th consecutive season.

Boston College has climbed back into bowl contention on the strength of its defense, which has allowed one touchdown by opposing offenses in the last three games combined. The Eagles, who held Duke to 4 rushing yards in a 21-16 victory over the Blue Devils last week, enter this game with the nation’s No. 1 run defense (74.6 yards per game). The leader of the unit is linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the country in tackles (14.6 per game) and has made at least 10 tackles in a nation-leading 19 consecutive games.

Virginia, meanwhile, is limping to the finish line. The Cavaliers have suffered back-to-back losses since their upset of Miami on Oct. 30. Starting offensive tackle Landon Bradley is out for the season with a knee injury, and starting cornerback Ras-I Dowling also is done for the year with an ankle injury that followed knee and hamstring ailments.

Those injuries will hurt the Cavaliers, but the key storyline entering this game is the health of Virginia’s top two rushers after they went down last week against the Terrapins. Perry Jones suffered a head injury, and Keith Payne suffered a lower leg injury. Virginia coach Mike London is cautiously optimistic that both tailbacks will be able to play against the Eagles, but the combination of their iffy health and Boston College’s smothering run defense might cause the Cavaliers to rely more on quarterback Marc Verica and their passing game.

On the other side, Virginia must find a way to contain Boston College tailback Montel Harris, who leads the ACC in rushing (112.9 ypg). Harris lost a pair of fumbles in the red zone at Duke last week, so ball security will be his primary concern as he searches for running room against a Virginia defense that ranks 107th nationally (ACC-worst 202.5 ypg) against the run.

Duke (3-7, 1-5 ACC) at Georgia Tech (5-5, 3-4 ACC), Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET

Georgia Tech has dominated the series with Duke over the last two decades, winning 18 of the last 20 matchups and each of the last six meetings. If the Yellow Jackets extend that streak, they will become bowl-eligible for the 14th consecutive year.

Duke, meanwhile, was eliminated from bowl contention with its 21–16 loss to Boston College last week. The Blue Devils have no shot at a .500 record, but what they do have is plenty of experience defending Georgia Tech’s unconventional style of offense. Duke already has played Army and Navy this season, two teams that rely on the option and use many of the same principles and plays as the Yellow Jackets, who lead the nation in rushing (319.3 yards per game).

Tevin Washington continues to fill in at quarterback for Joshua Nesbitt, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a broken right arm. Washington completed 7 of 16 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown last week in the first start of his career, and he will take his best shot at a Duke defense that isn’t shy about crowding the line of scrimmage against run-oriented opponents.

On the other side, the Blue Devils have benefited from improved play from their quarterbacks in the last three weeks. Duke coach David Cutcliffe has maintained that Sean Renfree is his starter, but he continues to use backup Brandon Connette in short-yardage and red-zone situations. Renfree, who threw 14 interceptions during Duke’s six-game losing streak earlier this season, has not thrown an interception in the last three games.

Clemson (5-5, 3-4 ACC) at Wake Forest (2-8, 1-6 ACC), Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Clemson is kicking itself for missed opportunities this season. The Tigers wouldn’t find themselves in this position — out of the Atlantic Division race and still needing one more win to become bowl-eligible — if they had done a better job kicking the football. Chandler Catanzaro made just 2-of-4 field-goal tries in Clemson’s 16-13 loss at Florida State last week, and the Tigers are 9-of-18 on field-goal attempts for the season. Clemson, which got just six points on four trips inside the FSU 20 last week, has scored a touchdown on just three of its last 16 trips inside the red zone.

If the Tigers are to improve those numbers this week, they will have to do so without their top offensive weapon. Tailback Andre Ellington remains sidelined with a strained ligament and a bone fragment in his foot, leaving Jamie Harper as Clemson’s primary ball carrier. Harper enjoyed a breakout performance last week against the Seminoles, rushing for 143 yards and catching nine passes for 54 yards, and he will go against a Wake Forest defense that ranks 114th nationally in points allowed (38.7 per game).

The Demon Deacons, who have dropped eight consecutive games in the same season for the first time since 1978, haven’t been much better on offense. They played last week without both of their starting guards, Joe Looney (ankle) and Michael Hoag (concussion), and converted wide receiver Michael Campanaro led the team in rushing.

Wake Forest will have its hands full this week with a Clemson defense that ranks ninth nationally in points allowed (ACC-best 17.4 per game). Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers leads the nation in sacks (1.35 per game) and ranks second in the country in tackles for loss (2.20 per game).

Virginia Tech (8-2, 6-0 ACC) at Miami (7-3, 5-2 ACC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Virginia Tech can clinch its fourth Coastal Division title in six years with a victory in this matchup of former Big East powers. Miami needs a win to remain in contention for its first division title since joining the ACC.

The Hokies, who have won three of the last four meetings with the Hurricanes, enter this game with an eight-game winning streak. Virginia Tech forced six turnovers in its 26-10 victory at North Carolina last week, coaxing fifth-year senior T.J. Yates into a career-high-tying four interceptions. The Hokies will try to pick off passes from a true freshman this week, with Stephen Morris in line to start his third consecutive game as Jacory Harris recovers from a concussion he suffered at Virginia on Oct. 30.

Morris will be tested by a Virginia Tech defense that features NCAA interception leader Jayron Hosley (0.78 interceptions per game) and ranks seventh nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency (100.9 rating). Miami’s ground game has flourished with Morris at quarterback, but Morris also has shown instant chemistry with wide receiver Leonard Hankerson. Hankerson, who leads the ACC in receiving yards (87.9 per game), has tied Michael Irvin’s school record for touchdown catches in a season (11) and has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive games.

Virginia Tech counters with a much more experienced passer in senior quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but Taylor’s task also will be a tough one. Miami ranks second nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency, third nationally in passing yards allowed (147.9 per game) and tied for ninth in the country in sacks (2.90 per game).

Florida State (7-3, 5-2 ACC) at Maryland (7-3, 4-2 ACC), Saturday, 8 p.m. ET

The winner stays alive in its quest for the Atlantic Division title, while the loser is eliminated from contention. Florida State enters the week with a half-game lead on Maryland and NC State in the standings, but the Terrapins and Wolfpack are in control. If Maryland or NC State wins its final two games — they play each other next week in the regular-season finale — that team wins the division. Still, next week’s game between the Wolfpack and Terrapins could turn out to be irrelevant with regard to determining the division winner. If North Carolina beats NC State on Saturday and Florida State follows up with a win over Maryland, the Seminoles will play in the ACC championship game.

Florida State remained in contention thanks to its 16–13 victory over Clemson last week, a game decided by Dustin Hopkins’ 55-yard field goal as time expired. Backup quarterback E.J. Manuel started and went the distance for the Seminoles in that game after Christian Ponder missed practice all week to receive medical attention for his sore right elbow. Doctors finally have figured out what was ailing Ponder — he had separated the fascia from a muscle near his elbow, not ruptured a bursa sac, as originally thought — and Ponder will start against the Terrapins after returning to practice at full speed.

The news is less positive about a couple of Ponder’s key weapons. Starting tailback Jermaine Thomas sprained his right knee against the Tigers and is out this week, leaving Chris Thompson and Ty Jones to split the carries. Wide receiver Willie Haulstead is questionable after suffering a concussion.

Maryland, meanwhile, enters this contest with three wins in its last four games after posting a 42-23 victory at Virginia last week. The Terrapins, who have lost three consecutive games against the Seminoles and 18 of 20 meetings overall, continue to come up with game-changing plays on both sides of the ball. Maryland ranks third in the country in turnover margin (plus-1.30 per game), a key reason for its resurgence after a 2-10 season in 2009.

The Terrapins have done an admirable job of protecting redshirt freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien with an offensive line that was revamped because of injuries, but they face their toughest test of the season this week. Florida State, led by defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Markus White, leads the nation in sacks (3.90 per game).

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Athlon previews Week 12 in the ACC.

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