Ranking the Best ACC Football Matchups of Week 6
After convincing wins over quality ACC opponents in Virginia Tech and Duke, respectively, the Clemson Tigers and Miami Hurricanes have cemented themselves as the two teams to watch in the league.
The Tigers are no real surprise, defending their national championship in style so far as coach Dabo Swinney's past recruiting victories are showing up on the field and replacing all that talent from a season ago. Last week in Blacksburg, they disposed of one of the conference's top three teams, 31-17, without much worry.
Mark Richt's Hurricanes are a bit of a different story. While many expected the former Georgia coach to get his alma mater back quickly, Miami is legit in Year 2. It may be premature to say it's back to The U, but last Thursday's 31-6 win over Duke wasn't really ever close.
This week they'll have another legit test to keep it going. Clemson battles Wake Forest a week after the Demon Deacons suffered their first loss of the year to Florida State. It was the Seminoles' first win of 2017, and they'll try to make it two in a row against the 'Canes.
That's not even mentioning the marquee game of the week, pitting ranked opponents Louisville at North Carolina State Thursday. And Notre Dame travels to North Carolina. There are plenty of interesting games in the ACC this week.
Let's take a look at the top showdowns.
7. Pittsburgh at Syracuse
This is a must-win game for Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two programs that are teetering of the brink of a season spiraling out of control.
For the 2-3 Orange, second-year head coach Dino Babers needs to get back to .500, especially considering Clemson, Miami and Florida State are looming on the schedule. Though the Seminoles game looks more winnable after their quarterback suffered a season-ending injury, the other two are much tougher.
If Syracuse doesn't win this game, it may be a while before it adds to the W column.
Meanwhile, the Panthers also are 2-3 after coach Pat Narduzzi led them to back-to-back eight-win seasons. This year, it's going to be tough to make it three in a row, but the next few weeks look less challenging than Syracuse's.
On paper, this looks like a difficult matchup for Pitt's struggling defense because the Orange can score points in bunches.
Speaking of points, the Panthers and Orange set an FBS single-game record for total points in last year's game that Pitt won 76-71.
"I've never been in a game like that and I don't ever want to be in a game like that again," the defensive-minded Narduzzi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Craig Meyer.
It won't be that high-scoring this year, but it still has the potential for plenty of fireworks.
6. Virginia Tech at Boston College
Lane Stadium was loud, hyped and rocking for last Saturday night's rematch of last year's ACC Championship Game between Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Unfortunately for the hometown Hokies, they couldn't get their freshman quarterback going in a 31-17 loss to the defending national champions. Josh Jackson had decent stats on the surface, but he also played like a first-year starter at times.
Still, the Hokies are 4-1 and look like a major contender in the Coastal Division along with Miami. But they've got to take care of business, beginning this week against Boston College.
"I think our kids understand the challenges in front of them," head coach Justin Fuente told the Roanoke Times' Matt Gentry. "None of them are happy about what happened. My message [Sunday] was, 'Don't even walk in here and feel sorry for yourself. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It's up to us to change the situation we're in."
After hardly showing up in losses to Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson, the Eagles got back to winning ways against Central Michigan with a 28-8 win last week. Now at 2-3, they'll need to play their best game of the Steve Addazio era to upend the Hokies.
This begins a rugged stretch that includes road trips to Louisville and Virginia before hosting Florida State and North Carolina State. Things are going to be tough for the Eagles for a while.
5. Notre Dame at North Carolina
This has been a forgettable season for North Carolina and head coach Larry Fedora, who has presided over one of the ACC's upstart programs the past six years.
Following defensive coordinator Gene Chizik quitting coaching and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky getting selected in the first round of the NFL draft, the Tar Heels have endured a season that may just need to end quickly so everybody can move on.
Georgia Tech manhandled UNC last week 33-7 to drop the Heels to a 1-4 record. The only team they've beaten is Old Dominion. Quarterback issues abound, along with struggles on both sides of the ball. Now the Tar Heels will try to get a season-turning win against Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish are 4-1 and ranked 21st, responding with resounding wins over Michigan State and Miami (Ohio) after a demoralizing home loss to Georgia that has aged well as the Bulldogs are rolling.
But the Irish can't afford to travel to Chapel Hill and take a loss to a team that is searching for its way. An upset here would bring a little happiness to an otherwise dreary season for Carolina. It isn't out of the realm of possibility: The Irish may have to start backup quarterback Ian Book since starter Brandon Wimbush has an injured foot.
Still, it would be a surprise if UNC won the way this year has gone.
"The Tar Heels are not only uncompetitive," USA Today's Dan Wolken wrote this week, "but they're not even entertaining."
4. Duke at Virginia
After probably feeling like they should be ranked after getting off to a 4-0 start to the season that featured wins over Northwestern, Duke and North Carolina, the Duke Blue Devils tumbled back down to earth last Friday.
Fellow unbeaten Miami traipsed into Wallace Wade Stadium and handled coach David Cutcliffe's team 31-6 in a one-sided game. Though Duke's stout defense wasn't awful, the offense was in a bad position all night and the Hurricanes feasted.
Now, Duke must move on.
That starts with a trip to Charlottesville to play a sneakily improving Virginia team that can beat you before you know it.
Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall has his Hoos at 3-1 after an impressive 42-23 road victory at Boise State. If not for a slip-up against Indiana, UVA would be unbeaten. This will be another major test for a program trying to get back to winning ways.
The next four weeks are pivotal with winnable games against Duke, North Carolina, Boston College and Pitt before ending the season with a grueling stretch that includes Georgia Tech, at Louisville, at Miami and Virginia Tech.
Mendenhall's team needs to pile up the W's before then. This is a key week for both of these teams.
3. Wake Forest at Clemson
Wake Forest has grown as a football program over coach Dave Clawson's four-year tenure, but the Demon Deacons blew a golden opportunity last weekend to get a signature win over a blue-blood program that was—as the old cliche goes—ripe for the picking.
That would be Florida State, a winless team starting a true freshman quarterback in James Blackman. Wake, on the other hand, was undefeated, though heavily untested since it hadn't played any quality opponents.
Instead of getting a huge win, Wake lost 26-19, and FSU retained its rightful place in the hierarchy of the conference.
This week, the Deacs get a do-over. But this time, it's going to be much tougher. Pretty much everybody in the nation expects them to be 4-2 after a trip to Death Valley to take on the unbeaten Clemson Tigers, the defending national champions who are playing every bit like they could repeat.
Last weekend, the Tigers didn't rack up the same amount of style points in a marquee, big-stage win as they did when they handled Louisville and Lamar Jackson earlier this year. But they still wound up with a 31-17 victory at Virginia Tech.
That was a Hokies team that was well-coached and well-prepared. But Clemson is all that, with a ton of talent, too. Now, they'll be expected to dispatch Wake easily as well. Will that happen or will this be a letdown game?
2. Miami at Florida State
In the old days, Miami and Florida State played the type of games that everybody in the country wanted to tune in and watch.
Not only was there hard-hitting, high-flying action among kids who'd been rivals all throughout high school and even youth leagues in the Sunshine State, they produced some of the top NFL players of our generation.
It's been a few years since both sides of the rivalry held up their end, and with all of the Seminoles' injury issues, it may be another season until it is really a huge showdown again, but this Saturday's game has plenty of potential.
Though Jimbo Fisher's FSU team was expected to be contending for the national title, an injury to quarterback Deondre Francois has left the team trying to find its way and scuffling along at 1-2.
Instead, this looks like it could be Miami's year to make a major move. The Hurricanes' defensive front seven is dynamic, and they also have a game-changing running back in Mark Walton. Though coach Mark Richt doesn't have all his pieces in order yet, there is a ton of talent on The U's roster.
With a top-notch recruiting class coming in next year, it's only going to get better. But can the Hurricanes unseat their longtime rival and stake claim to the top program in Florida? This weekend will go a long way in determining that, especially with the Florida Gators still plodding along.
There are plenty of reasons to watch this game, and there will be plenty of passion, athleticism and swagger on display.
1. Louisville at North Carolina State (Thursday)
At the beginning of the season, some pundits expected North Carolina State could be a sleeper pick to contend for the ACC, but a season-opening setback against South Carolina put those talks on hold.
Since then, the Wolfpack have been playing up to their expectations.
Now, they're ranked again, but the season will really kick it up a gear beginning with this week when coach Dave Doeren's team hosts Lamar Jackson and Louisville. It's going to be the nation's most exciting offensive player against one of the best all-around defenses in the league, led by senior Bradley Chubb.
Though NC State has shown improvement, it hasn't exactly whipped up on a murderer's row. Florida State was a good win on paper, but the Seminoles aren't on firm footing yet. The Wolfpack only beat Syracuse 33-25. So, the next few weeks are critical.
After this week's game against the Cardinals and a trip next week to Pitt, the team travels to Notre Dame before coming home to play Clemson. We'll know how good it is in the next month, for sure.
The past two weeks have been laughers for Louisville as the Cardinals beat Kent State and Murray State by a combined 97-13 score. That was after Clemson embarrassed them 47-21.
So, is Louisville really worthy of being ranked No. 17? Is NC State at No. 24? The winner of this game will probably stay in the poll, while the loser likely tumbles out. This week's game will tell us plenty about the direction of both programs.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.