ACC: Duke Blue Devils

The celebration in the Duke locker room was rather subdued. It was a big ACC win against a Coastal contender for the Blue Devils, but no one in Durham, North Carolina, is satisfied.

Bowl eligibility, even if only 16 FBS team can boast the claim through Week 8, doesn’t provide an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, a stark contrast from just two years ago. For a Duke program in its seventh season under coach David Cutcliffe, bowl eligibility is no longer enough.

"I wasn’t even on my mind [Saturday]," Cutcliffe said. "... We have young people now that expect to compete for an opportunity to play for a championship. They prepare for it."

[+] Enlarge Josh Snead
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Blue Devils have lost only one of their past 15 regular-season conference games.
With its win against Virginia, which several believed to be the Coastal’s best team, the Blue Devils are 6-1 and tied atop the division. They have a bye this weekend before traveling to Pittsburgh, and a win against the Panthers would give Duke a head-to-head advantage over probably the two teams best positioned in terms of remaining schedule -- Pitt and Georgia Tech --- to win the division.

It wasn’t long ago -- 2012 to be exact -- that the Blue Devils were in the midst of an 18-year bowl drought. But then came double-digit wins in 2013, a trip to an ACC title game and bowl game in which Duke nearly ruined Johnny Football’s finale.

Last season was a giant leap for the Blue Devils but a surprising one. Duke was the feel-good story -- a perennial pitied program turned title game participant -- but nationally the perception was of a mediocre team that took advantage of a volatile division widely considered the worst within the Power 5. Even the Blue Devils were built more on hope than belief as it puts it team together that spring.

There still is a sense the Blue Devils aren’t respected nationally or regionally -- they are unranked and were not picked to win the division by ACC media -- but there is a different sense at Duke. Cutcliffe felt that this spring.

"I thought our spring practice was different. I go back to that point: This team prepared different in spring ball," he said. "I told our staff that’s a significant change from what we had to do and what we got out of spring practice [in 2013]."

Duke has been building toward annual ACC success under Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils have lost only one of their past 15 regular-season conference games, and their 22 overall wins since 2012 is fourth in the conference.

Now, with a schedule that sets up nicely in the second half -- only Pitt has a winning conference record among future opponents -- the Blue Devils are moving toward a second consecutive berth in the conference title game.

That is something worth getting excited over at Duke.

Said Cutcliffe: "It’s been a long time coming."

By the numbers: Week 8 recap

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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Digging into some numbers from Week 8 in the ACC ...

Winston is the comeback kid

Amid all the off-field chaos, it's easy to forget how good Jameis Winston is on the field, and he's been particularly impressive when his team needs him most. Winston is awfully good at rallying his team. In the second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, Winston was a sterling 15-of-16 for 181 yards, leading two touchdown drives.

This is nothing new. While Winston hasn't been tested often, his numbers when playing from behind are off the charts. Since the start of last season, Winston has completed 81-of-109 passes (74 percent) for 1,104 yards (13.6 yards-per-attempt) with 12 touchdowns and one interception when FSU is trailing. That's absurd.

Winston also excelled against the blitz Saturday. In 2013, he completed 69 percent of his throws, averaged 11.8 yards-per-attempt and tossed 21 TDs to just three picks vs. the blitz, but to start this season, his YPA dropped to 8.1 and he had just three TDs on 54 attempts. Against the Irish, however, Winston was 9-of-11 for 113 yards with two TDs and no picks when facing the blitz.

Noles' ground game struggling

On Saturday, FSU mustered just 50 yards on 26 rushing attempts -- a dismal 1.92 YPC. Last season, FSU averaged 5.6 yards per rush, but it has yet to hit that mark in any game against an FBS foe this season.

It's not all on the tailbacks, however. The biggest difference appears to be the O-line.

.

FSU's runners are averaging roughly the exact same number of yards after first contact as they did in the previous two seasons, but they're getting more than two yards-per-carry less before contact than they did in 2012.

Boyd and nothing else

Pitt toppled Virginia Tech on Thursday despite QB Chad Voytik completing just 10 passes (on 17 attempts). What's perhaps even more noteworthy about Pitt's passing game, however, is that the only wide receiver to catch a pass was Tyler Boyd, who had six receptions on nine targets.

That's hardly a surprise. For the season, Boyd has 34 catches against FBS teams. The rest of Pitt's receiving corps has 22.

Overall, Boyd has accounted for 41.4 percent of Pitt's targets and 49.7 percent of its receiving yards vs. FBS foes -- both the highest rates in the nation.

Clemson stuffs the run

Remember in the opener when Todd Gurley ran all over Clemson's defense? Georgia racked up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on 41 carries. It was ugly.

Since then, however, the Tigers have surrendered just 395 more yards in six games. Clemson is allowing just 2.0 yards-per-carry since the opener, the best rate in the nation. Against Boston College on Saturday, it held the Eagles to nearly 200 yards below their season rushing average, and the Tigers racked up 14 tackles for loss. It was the fourth time in the last six games Clemson has had double-digit TFLs, and since that opening game against UGA, no defense in the country has created a higher percentage of negative rushing plays than Clemson's (36.5 percent).

Marquise the magician

For the second straight week, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams was terrific. Williams enjoyed his third 300-yard game of the season (Winston is the only other ACC QB with as many), chucking four TD passes and adding a fifth score -- along with 70 rushing yards -- on the ground in a win against Georgia Tech.

It's the second straight game Williams had 300 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and at least three total touchdowns. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 conference QB to do that in back-to-back games was Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Heels, Jackets struggle on D

Entering Saturday's game, the only Power 5 conference team allowing more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech (6.3) and North Carolina (6.2) was South Carolina (6.35), so it was no surprise that the two defenses coughed up 1,190 yards and 91 points when they faced off.

For Georgia Tech, it's the continuation of a downward trend. In Ted Roof's first eight games against FBS teams as Tech's defensive coordinator, the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.5 yards-per-play and held five opponents below 101 yards rushing. In his last nine, opponents have rushed for an average of 173 yards per game and are averaging 6.5 yards-per-play overall, good for 115th in the nation in that span.

But things are even worse for the Tar Heels. In the last decade, just five Power 5 conference teams have allowed more yards in their first seven games than UNC (3,659) and only four have allowed more touchdowns (40).

Quick hitters
  • Entering the game, Virginia QBs were completing 63 percent of their throws to wide receivers this season, but against Duke, the Hoos completed just 45 percent. Matt Johns targeted wideouts on 70.2 percent of his throws in the game — the second-highest percentage of throws to WRs for Virginia quarterbacks this season. Cavaliers wideouts haven't caught a touchdown pass in their past three games after hauling in six in the first four.
  • Johns did hit running back Khalek Shepherd for a passing touchdown. It was just the third one Duke has allowed this season. Only San Jose State and Ole Miss have allowed a lower rate of touchdown throws in the nation.
  • Ryan Switzer in 13 games last season: 32 catches, 341 yards, three TDs. Switzer in seven games this season: 34 catches, 429 yards, three TDs.
  • The two highest completion percentages for Power 5 wideouts (min. 30 targets) reside in the ACC, and both are true freshmen: Clemson's Artavis Scott (38 catches on 46 targets) and NC State's Bo Hines (28 catches on 35 targets).
  • UNC's defense has struggled, but it has also been opportunistic. The Heels have 80 points off turnovers this year, the third-best total in the country. On the flip side, the Heels have allowed 77 points off turnovers, the second-worst total in the country.
There is a simple bit of clarity confronting the ACC and Florida State eight weeks into the season: Perfection seems the only way to get the Seminoles into the College Football Playoff.

No other Power 5 program will be held to such a standard. But no other Power 5 conference has its reputation in a sinkhole the way the ACC does. That is why it was so important for Florida State to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. As long as the Noles keep winning, they are assured of a spot in the top four. But lose? Florida State may as well be playing in Conference USA. That is how little respect the ACC has nationally right now.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston was fired up after Saturday's victory over Notre Dame, but the Noles will have to keep winning if they hope to make the playoff.
Just look at the most recent AP and coaches Top 25 polls. While the College Football Playoff selection committee will put together its own rankings next week, it is instructive to look at how the media and coaches perceive the ACC -- outside Florida State.

Because the league as a whole is what will drag Florida State down if the Noles lose a game.

Besides Florida State, the ACC has only one ranked team. In the AP poll, Clemson (5-2) is No. 21 behind two other two-loss teams: Oklahoma and USC. Reigning Coastal champion Duke (6-1) cannot even crack the Top 25 after back-to-back victories over ACC teams with winning records. East Carolina (5-1), with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, is ranked No. 18.

Duke and Minnesota are the only 6-1 teams from Power 5 conferences that are unranked. That fact not only speaks to their status as “non-football powers,” but to the idea that their respective leagues are weak. The Big Ten has been panned for its mediocrity this season. But the ACC ranks lower than the Big Ten in the ESPN.com conference power rankings, sitting last among the Power 5 conferences.

Everything we heard during media days about the ACC being stronger? Everything we heard about the ACC gaining more respect since it boasted the national champion? False propaganda. As it turns out, an ACC world with the reigning national champion does not look much different.

Florida State is still alone holding the flag, while Clemson is a distant second. It is hard for a program to fight off the weak-conference stigma when it does not beat its most difficult opponents (Clemson) or play anybody tough out of conference (Duke).

Clemson lost to two Top 10 teams this season -- to Georgia and Florida State. Both teams were ranked higher than the Tigers at the time they played. Yet Oklahoma lost to two teams ranked lower (TCU and Kansas State) and is still four spots higher than Clemson in the AP poll.

These are the ingrained notions that follow programs around, no matter what they do. Clemson “chokes” and the ACC is constantly disrespected. Put them both together and you get critics completely dismissing Florida State’s win over the Tigers earlier this season.

Falling flat nationally hurts, too. While ACC teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State have big wins over then-Top 10 opponents, the league also has some head-scratching losses to Colorado State, Akron and ULM. Plus, there were blown opportunities against UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland.

So essentially, Florida State gets no lifelines from its conference foes. Even a beefed-up nonconference schedule has not engendered much goodwill from the rest of the country.

Funny to think that before the season started, many believed a one-loss Florida State team would survive and make it into the College Football Playoff based on a strength of schedule that looked much better than it did last season.

As it stands today, Florida State is on pace to play fewer ranked teams than it played in 2013. Right now, the Noles have two ranked teams behind them and none remaining. Last season, they played four Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup (two of them ended the season unranked).

Four of Florida State's remaining five games are against teams with winning records. But nobody wants to hear that going to Louisville and Miami won’t be easy; that Virginia is vastly improved; that Boston College gave the Noles fits last season. Florida State will be expected to win them all.

That’s really the only way the Noles can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoff.

Once again, Florida State is on its own.

ACC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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The win over Notre Dame certainly wasn’t the final piece to Florida State’s playoff puzzle, but it was clearly the biggest hurdle the Seminoles had remaining on the schedule. That has secured FSU’s spot in our postseason projections, but for now, we’re still predicting the Irish will get a bowl game shot at another ACC power.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Duke
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville
Belk Bowl: Virginia
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Georgia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: NC State

* Note: If Notre Dame is not invited to the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game, it will assume one of the ACC’s bowl spots.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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ACC mailbag

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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Since the ACC Black Cat has nearly jinxed all of you, I am doing my best to reverse the fortunes of the ACC by (temporarily) seizing control of the mailbag.

Anonymous Eagle from California writes: Boston College total rushing yards allowed: 599. Clemson total rushing yards allowed: 603. Seems pretty even to me. And with Clemson’s main QB out with an injury, Clemson might have to depend more on the run. That Louisville game was messy. BC has issues -- they dominated USC then completely failed to contain Colorado State -- but I think this game will be a lot closer than everyone thinks.

Shanker: OK, so you’re really not asking a question Anonymous Eagle, but your analysis that 599 and 603 are “pretty even” is an accurate assessment. I agree the game will be close, but I’m not sure anyone sees this as a blowout with the Tigers reeling from the loss of star freshman Deshaun Watson. This is obviously an entirely different team with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, and I’m not sure anyone would be shocked if Boston College, a five-point home underdog, pulled off the upset. The Clemson rushing attack has been ineffective much of the season, and now the Eagles will be able to load the box, although they still need to do so at their own peril as the Tigers are loaded at receiver. However, Boston College is one dimensional on offense, too, which means Clemson can also focus on just stopping Tyler Murphy as a runner and daring him to throw. You can talk about rushing numbers all you want, but this game probably comes down to which quarterback can make enough plays through the air. And enough plays might mean just one or two.




Jeff Miller from Perry, Georgia, writes: What are Georgia Tech’s chances of winning the Coastal?

Shanker: I’d say very good, it is probably in the second-best position to win the division. The loss to Duke is a real buzz kill, though. With wins against Virginia Tech and Miami the previous two weeks, the Yellow Jackets were putting some distance between them and some of the other Coastal contenders. Now Duke owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the Blue Devils' schedule is soft. I’ll spell it: s-o-f-capital T ... sofT. If they clear these next two games against Virginia at home and at Pittsburgh, it’s hard to find another loss on their schedule. Pitt’s schedule sets up nicely, too, but the Panthers are not convincing anyone they are legitimate contenders yet. Miami has to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday, at Virginia and against No. 2 Florida State. Though Virginia might be the best Coastal team, it’s an uphill battle for the Cavs to clinch a berth in the ACC title game with road games against Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech, plus a home game against Miami to end the season.




Tyler from Athens, Georgia, writes: Hey, Andrea, I was wondering if this could be the year, even with the struggles on offense, that the Hokies get back to 10 wins?

Shanker: I’m not Andrea, which is bad news for the Hokies. Stick with me here. Virginia Tech is 4-3 after Thursday’s loss and needs to win out and either play in and win the conference championship, or their bowl game. With a decently tough second half of the schedule (by ACC standards) and a conference title game almost certainly against FSU, the odds are the Hokies don’t get 10 wins. Alas, if Andrea was answering this question, she certainly would say Virginia Tech won't get 10 wins, thus Black Cat-ting that prediction and causing Virginia Tech to win out.

But seriously, there was an outside chance if Virginia Tech beat Pittsburgh, but now the best they can finish the regular season with is nine wins. I think best-case scenario is they close out the regular season at 4-1, which still puts them at 8-4 going into a bowl game as the odds of making it to Charlotte are slimming by the week.




Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: Andrea, I think your black cat is worse than HD's Kiss of Death. Please no black cat for my Noles this weekend..........PLEASE!!!!!

Shanker: The Black Cat nickname actually originated in the press box of the Clemson-Florida State game, and it took an all-time Clemsoning effort for the Seminoles to stave off the curse that night. So far the Seminoles have been impervious to the Black Cat spell, but Notre Dame could be the toughest opponent they face all season. If Florida State loses, though, it won’t be because of Andrea, although feel free to blame her.

It’s a pseudo cop out to say this game comes down to turnovers, because a lot of games do, but it is especially key Saturday given the recent history of the teams. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is making critical mistakes that are either costing his team points or directly putting points on the board for the opponent. Though the Seminoles’ defense has been susceptible to big plays and a lot of yards, they squeezed Syracuse in the red zone last week. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has had a few costly turnovers this season, too, and Florida State’s defense is not good enough this season to continuously bail out an offense that puts it in a bad situation. The Seminoles have been great at doing that so far this season -- colleague David Hale with a stat that has their defense allowing just three touchdowns on drives beginning in their zone -- but it’s not the kind of situational football FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wants to continue playing.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.

Noon

Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.

ACC morning links

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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Remember the ACC’s preseason media poll? OK, we don’t blame you for ignoring it. That was probably a good idea.

In any case, here’s how the Coastal votes stacked up:
1. Miami
2. Duke
3. Virginia Tech
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
6. Pittsburgh
7. Virginia

Those top four teams all received at least 23 first-place votes (Tech got 1, Pitt got 2, Virginia got none). And after Thursday’s Virginia Tech loss to Pitt, three of those top four teams now have two losses in conference play already. On Saturday, Virginia has a chance to complete the foursome by beating Duke, while securing its spot atop the Coastal Division. And this is why we shouldn’t make preseason predictions.

On the field, Pitt looked significantly better than it had in its previous three games -- all losses. Chad Voytik wasn’t great in the passing game -- 10-of-17 for 92 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, while not completing a ball to a wideout other than Tyler Boyd -- but he more than made up for it with his legs. Voytik ran 17 times for 135 yards (not counting sacks), including a 49-yard run that set up the Panthers’ decisive touchdown.

That’s been a trend for the Hokies’ defense this season. In six games against FBS teams, Virginia Tech has allowed four quarterbacks to run for at least 120 yards. Non-QB runs against Tech are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but quarterbacks (not including sacks) are averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season.

What was clear from Thursday’s game is that the Hokies have a lot of troubles at the moment, but with Tyler Murphy and Anthony Boone still on the schedule down the road, this is one that needs to get fixed quickly.

A few more links:

ACC Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
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Adelson: Pitt has not done much of anything right during its three-game losing streak, but the Panthers are facing an opponent that has some issues of its own headed into this game. Virginia Tech is banged up at running back and will rely on J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb to carry the load. So essentially, the Hokies are down to their fourth and fifth options. That bodes well for the Pitt defense, which has had issues stopping the run. Without an effective run game, Virginia Tech will have a tough time offensively. While the Hokies have a formidable defensive front, James Conner and Tyler Boyd will make enough plays to scramble up the Coastal again. Plus, Virginia Tech is 0-3 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh 24, Virginia Tech 23

Hale: The story for the Hokies remains the same every week: Don't screw it up. The Virginia Tech defense has been prone to big plays, but during its three-game losing streak Pitt has had just 12 plays of 20 yards or more (85th nationally during that span). Virginia Tech's offense hasn't been terrific, but it's been effective when avoiding turnovers. Among ACC teams, only Boston College has created fewer takeaways than Pitt. In other words, it's a good matchup for Virginia Tech to avoid disaster, and with a bye week to iron out a few kinks the Hokies should be at their best. The wild card, however, could be the ground games. Tech is down two of its top three runners, while Pitt features the ACC's rushing leader in Conner. He'd been struggling of late after a heavy early workload, but last week's bye came at the right time. Still, Virginia Tech has allowed just 412 yards to opposing running backs this season, the sixth-lowest total in the nation. Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 24

Adelson: In a battle between two true freshman quarterbacks and uninspiring offenses, I am going with the defense that has made more plays over the course of the season. The nod goes to Wake Forest by a hair. The Deacs have played well enough defensively to stay in every game but the Florida State contest this season, and they will play well enough at home against Syracuse to score the game-winning points. Wake Forest 13, Syracuse 10

Fortuna: It's AJ Long time for Syracuse, and the freshman will feel all the more comfortable in Winston-Salem after debuting last week against the defending national champions. The Orange's stout front should be able to have its way against Wake Forest's offensive line, as the Deacs have surrendered 24 sacks this season. Wake's defense will give the home team a chance, but it will likely need more than that to get an ACC win. Syracuse 23, Wake Forest 10

Hale: Here's how the season has gone in the Coastal: A favorite emerges, then loses, then is brushed aside by the prognosticators in favor of another trendy team that's bound to lose, too. Last week, it was the Yellow Jackets that were the Coastal darlings, and they fell to Duke, a team that had been swept aside after its own dismal game against Miami. The struggles against Duke were largely Georgia Tech's own doing. For just the second time all season, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times, and it cost them. If they can avoid those mistakes against North Carolina and keep their offense on the field, they should have a distinct advantage. The Tar Heels are young along the defensive line and lack significant depth. Tech can run the option, control time of possession to keep UNC's explosive offense off the field, then wear down the Heels' defense in the second half. As Duke showed last week, one loss in the Coastal hardly means a team is done. Georgia Tech 42, North Carolina 38

Shanker: Although the offense received a lot of help from Notre Dame last week, the Tar Heels showed some fight and nearly pulled off the upset. That has to count for something, right? Plus, Georgia Tech is coming off a loss to Duke that would have given the Yellow Jackets a vice grip on the ACC Coastal with a game against Virginia looking like the last tough intra-division game. Let's be honest, I'm grasping at straws. But for some reason I see the Heels winning. North Carolina 38, Georgia Tech 24

Shanker: It's easy to see the circus once again around Florida State and expect the Seminoles to come out flat or distracted, but that's never been the case the past year. The more scrutiny on Jameis Winston, the better he usually performs. I do think it will take its toll a little bit this time, but it's not entirely the reason Florida State edges out a close win. Notre Dame is better than people give it credit for, and if Everett Golson limits turnovers, the Irish are a much harder team to beat. Winston has turned the ball over at critical times, too, and if that continues against Notre Dame, it could end up haunting the Seminoles this time. As we've seen through the first six games, though, the Seminoles know how to win and once again they'll find a way Saturday. Florida State 38, Notre Dame 35

Fortuna: Assuming Winston plays, FSU's offense is simply, as Brian Kelly said last week, another animal compared to what Notre Dame has faced so far. Rashad Greene won bowl MVP honors against the Irish as a freshman three years ago, and the Noles' record-holder should have another big day against a secondary down one more body in fifth-year senior and captain Austin Collinsworth. Golson, provided he avoids the turnover bug of recent weeks, will keep the Irish in the game, but FSU has more offensive firepower, giving the home team the edge in this shootout. Florida State 44, Notre Dame 30

Other unanimous picks

Virginia at Duke: The key for Virginia is at the line of scrimmage. After a slow start to the season, the Hoos have averaged 224 yards per game on the ground in their past three. They'll need to be able to run the ball to beat Duke -- something Georgia Tech struggled with a week ago. More importantly, however, Virginia's ferocious defensive front needs to attack the Blue Devils' offensive line. Slow down Duke's ground game and rattle Anthony Boone into some mistakes and, for one week at least, the new trendy pick for the Coastal can survive. Virginia 24, Duke 17

Clemson at Boston College: Tyler Murphy has been exceptional running BC's option attack this season, but he's yet to face a front as good as Clemson's. After their opening-week struggles against Todd Gurley and Georgia, the Tigers have allowed just one running play of 20 yards or more (a garbage time 40-yard run by South Carolina State) and have surrendered just 275 yards total on the ground, the fewest in the nation. Clemson 24, Boston College 10

NC State at Louisville: It's hard not to feel a little bad for the Wolfpack. This game ends a four-week stretch in which they got Florida State (with Winston fresh off a suspension), Clemson (with a healthy and poised Deshaun Watson) and Boston College (coming off a bye week). Now, the scuffling State offense runs into the buzz saw that is Louisville's top-ranked D. Oh, and the Cardinals are poised to get star receiver DeVante Parker back from injury this week, too. The Wolfpack will end their ACC losing streak soon, but not this week. Louisville 20, NC State 10

Current standings
Shanker: 44-7
Adelson: 41-10
Fortuna: 41-10
Hale: 41-10

ACC morning links

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
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Florida State reinstated linebacker Matthew Thomas, and it’s a move that could have a significant impact on Saturday night’s top-five showdown between No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 2 Florida State (8 p.m. ET ABC).

It’s unlikely Thomas receives a starting bid, but Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher has been waiting to get back a player like Thomas, who was a five-star recruit in the 2013 class. Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe, whose been hurt most of 2014, bring an athleticism to a group that has lacked it at times.

When Eligwe returned for the Wake Forest game earlier this month, Fisher estimated Eligwe could get anywhere from 20-40 snaps. For a player with the physical gifts the 6-foot-3, 218-pound redshirt freshman possesses, that is more than enough time for Thomas to make an impact.

Last week, Fisher made mention of Thomas’ ability to rush the passer. Through six games the Seminoles have rarely made the opposing quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket with a pass rush. Fisher said FSU is working on getting to the quarterback, and Thomas could be one of the solutions.

Here’s a few more links for your Thursday:

ACC playoff watch: Week 8

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
3:00
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For the ACC's playoff picture, we've effectively reached critical mass with Saturday's showdown between Florida State and Notre Dame.

Where the ACC stands: Florida State and Notre Dame did what they had to last week to ensure a marquee event in Tallahassee on Saturday, but the rest of the ACC took another hit. The league slid back behind the Big Ten in ESPN's conference power rankings, and beyond FSU and Clemson, no other ACC team ranks in our FPI top 30 (Virginia Tech is next at No. 34).

Top playoff contenders: Florida State (No. 2 AP, No. 4 FPI), Duke (No. 39 FPI), Georgia Tech (No. 47 FPI)

Nonconference record: 35-14 overall (1-1 last week), 21-11 vs. FBS, 4-7 vs. Power 5 (plus Notre Dame)

Week 7 recap: With Louisville's loss to Clemson, another ACC team was officially eliminated from playoff contention, according to ESPN's Eliminator. The Cardinals had an outside shot at the playoff with a win over the Tigers and victories later in the season against Florida State and Notre Dame, but as it stands now, just three ACC teams remain.

Two of those three went head-to-head last week, with Duke ending Georgia Tech's undefeated season. The Blue Devils remain alive for the playoff they win out and get a lot of help around the country, but their weak nonconference slate means the path will be particularly tough.

Georgia Tech's loss doesn't completely doom the Yellow Jackets, who could still win the wild Coastal and potentially finish up with wins over Clemson (No. 13 FPI), Georgia (No. 2 FPI) and Florida State (No. 4 FPI). That would certainly be a résumé worth considering for the playoff committee, but there was little in Tech's performance Saturday to suggest it's capable of pulling off that trifecta.

That leaves Florida State, which took care of business against Syracuse last week, while Notre Dame struggled but eventually emerged victorious over UNC to set up a top-five showdown in Tallahassee on Saturday.

Week 8 preview: If Duke and Georgia Tech's playoff hopes remain on life support, the plug could be pulled this week. The Blue Devils host Virginia, the Coastal Division leader, and the Hoos' stout defense should be an interesting challenge for a Blue Devils' offense still looking for a consistent identity.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, travels to North Carolina in a game that features the two worst defenses in the ACC, by yards-per-play surrendered vs. FBS teams. It was this time last year that the Tar Heels' turned around their season, and they certainly appeared improved last week against Notre Dame.

But again, the clear headliner this week -- and, really, for the rest of the season in the ACC -- is the Irish and the Seminoles. The two QBs are a combined 35-1 as starters (with Everett Golson's lone loss coming in the BCS national championship game), but there's also plenty of drama looming off the field.

It's become a seemingly weekly occurrence for Jameis Winston to find himself in hot water, but this week's revelations about autographs is an issue of compliance rather than a legal matter or a coach's discretion. Winston has shown he's more than capable of shrugging off controversy to perform at a high level on Saturdays, but the biggest question moving forward is how many more Saturdays Winston will be available.

Regardless, the showdown in Tallahassee could be a de facto play-in game for both teams. If Notre Dame wins, it's in position to swipe a playoff spot, which means there will be just three remaining vacancies for the Power 5 conferences. And with the SEC gearing up for multiple bids -- it has five of the FPI's top six teams right now -- there's little margin for error for FSU and no additional marquee games on the schedule to rebrand its narrative.

ACC Show: Week 8 (2 ET)

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
10:00
AM ET
ESPN.com ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna, David Hale and Jared shanker meet up to discuss this week's battle of Top 25 unbeatens -- Notre Dame vs. Syracuse -- and answer your questions live on screen.

ACC Upset Watch: Week 8

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
3:00
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We are only keeping one team off Upset Watch this week. Which means there might be a better than 50 percent chance the #ACCBlackCat will strike Louisville. As for the other six games ...

Thursday night

Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-1) at Pitt (3-3, 1-1), 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. Line: Virginia Tech by 1. The Panthers have lost three straight and have called this a "must win" given the division stakes on the line. While on paper the matchups seem to favor Virginia Tech, the Hokies have not yet faced a runner like James Conner, whose size and athleticism makes him difficult to bring down. Plus, Virginia Tech is banged up at running back. The Hokies may end up starting J.C. Coleman, who began the year No. 4 on the depth chart. Will they still be able to run on a porous Pitt defense without their best backs? Note: Pitt has won the last three games between the teams in Pittsburgh.

Saturday

Syracuse (2-4, 0-2) at Wake Forest (2-4, 0-2), noon ET, ESPN3. Line: Syracuse by 4.5. The Orange are one of the most banged-up teams in the ACC and are now dealing with another injury to quarterback Austin Wilson, who is day-to-day. A.J. Long will get the majority of the reps with the first team. Injuries and offensive upheaval never bode well, especially on the road against a defense that has held its own in nearly every game this season.

Virginia (4-2, 2-0) at Duke (5-1, 1-1), 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3. Line: Duke by 2.5. Virginia is all alone atop the Coastal Division but is the underdog. That is Coastal life for you. Duke has won five of the last six matchups and is coming in with some confidence after a huge road win at Georgia Tech. But let's not forget why Virginia is playing well this season. Its defense is among the best in the ACC and will give the Hoos a chance to pick up the win here.

No. 24 Clemson (4-2, 3-1) at Boston College (4-2, 1-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU. Line: Clemson by 6.5. The Eagles are not a pushover, having upset USC earlier this season. Even last year, BC nearly upset Clemson in Death Valley thanks to its power run game. Well the power run game is back, albeit with different runners, and that could present a challenge once again. Plus, Clemson will start Cole Stoudt, who has struggled in his time as quarterback. The Tigers scored no offensive touchdowns a week ago and have not had much of an identity when Deshaun Watson is out of the mix.

Georgia Tech (5-1, 2-1) at North Carolina (2-4, 0-2), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU. Line: Georgia Tech by 2.5. Given the matchup, Georgia Tech should be able to run all day on North Carolina. But if last week is any indication, the Tar Heels might be finding a rhythm on offense. Marquise Williams nearly single-handedly upset Notre Dame on the road. There will be opportunities to make some big plays on the inconsistent Georgia Tech defense. This could become a shootout, and if that happens it could be anyone's game to win.

No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) at No. 2 Florida State (6-0), 8 p.m. ET, ABC. Line: FSU by 12. Florida State has not blown out its elite competition to date, but Notre Dame comes into the game after a shaky performance against North Carolina so the double-digit line is somewhat understandable. Still, the Noles have yet to dominate a complete game from start to finish. If Everett Golson can hold on to the ball -- he has nine turnovers in the last three games -- he will give the Irish a chance to pull the big road upset.

ACC midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
10:30
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It's the midpoint for the ACC, and in a lot of ways, things aren't too much different from a year ago.

Florida State is the league's lone hope for the playoff, and while the Seminoles are riding high at 6-0, plenty of questions remain both on and off the field, starting with this week's showdown against No. 5 Notre Dame.

In the Coastal, things are as wild as ever. Virginia leads the way, but each time a new favorite has emerged, it has faltered a week later.

There have been some big wins -- Virginia Tech over Ohio State, Boston College over USC -- and some major disappointments (we're looking at you, Pitt and North Carolina). Established stars like Duke Johnson and Jameis Winston have looked good, if not Heisman quality, while new arrivals like Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson have turned in some of the season's finest performances.

But if there's much to be said about the ACC's first half in 2014, it's that it will serve as a worthy prologue for most teams only if the latter half of the season develops as planned. So much of what we thought we knew went out the window quickly, and so much of the story of the season is yet to be written. Florida State's playoff hopes remain, but so, too, do some significant hurdles. Clemson's season unraveled with September losses to two top-10 teams, but perhaps Watson can lead the Tigers to a long-awaited win over South Carolina at year's end. Virginia Tech has been up and down, but Frank Beamer has so much young talent developing that the Hokies can be excited about the future. Mike London has gone from the hot seat to potential division favorite if his team can hang on to its early momentum.

In other words, the silver linings haven't always been easy to find this season in the ACC, but, as so often seems to be the case in this league, there's hope that the rest of this year's storylines will be better.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Rob Kinnan/USA Today SportsRashad Greene has amassed almost 700 receiving yards halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Florida State receiver Rashad Greene. It's been a rockier start to the season than the defending champions might've hoped, but the one consistent piece throughout the first six games of the year has been Greene. He has 130 more receiving yards than anyone else in the conference. He set the school record for receptions against Syracuse, bringing his career total to 215. He's topped 100 yards in four of his five games against FBS foes despite being the only consistent threat in the Seminoles' passing game. And most importantly, his performances against Oklahoma State, Clemson and NC State were the biggest difference between an FSU team that's scuffling at 3-3 or headed toward the playoff at 6-0.

Defensive MVP: Louisville safety Gerod Holliman. There are plenty of quality candidates for the honor, many of them on Holliman's own defense, but he gets the nod based on the sheer ridiculousness of his seven picks through seven games. A year ago, only one player in the nation had more than seven interceptions for the entire season, but Holliman has continued to rack up the takeaways as his defensive front punishes opposing quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville's defense has been on the field for 93 drives against FBS foes. Fifteen resulted in points. Sixteen resulted in turnovers, including seven that ended up in the hands of Louisville's sophomore safety.

Biggest surprise: Virginia's strong start. When the preseason prognosticators got together, the only Coastal Division team that didn't earn a first-place vote was Virginia. Midway through the season, however, it's the Cavaliers atop the Coastal. Chalk it up to a terrific defense, led by Henry Coley (6 sacks), Eli Harold (5.5 sacks) and freshman Quin Blanding (ACC-leading 61 tackles). Meanwhile, London's crew has navigated a quarterback carousel to find an offense that's developing each week. A team that was once the consensus cellar dweller is the lone Coastal player without a loss in conference play.

Biggest disappointment: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 2-4, but they've trailed in every game they've played this season. They were torched by ECU in one of the most atrocious defensive performances in recent memory, then were lit up for six touchdown passes by a true freshman making his first career start a week later. A game performance against Notre Dame last week at least offers some optimism that a turnaround similar to 2013 is possible, but it's been another rough start for UNC.

Newcomer of the year: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The freshman opened the season as Cole Stoudt's backup but won the starting job after a stellar performance against Florida State. He looked poised and precise and ran Chad Morris' offense with ease through the next few games, leading the nation in QBR in the process. But a broken finger suffered against Louisville has doomed Watson to the sidelines for at least the next three to four weeks, meaning a few other newcomers -- Blanding, Miami's Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech's Isaiah Ford and NC State's Jacoby Brissett (a transfer) -- still have a chance to take this award by year's end.

Best coach: FSU's Jimbo Fisher. He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves because he clearly has the league's most talented team, but through all the trials and tribulations of the past year, Fisher has directed the Seminoles to 22 straight wins. He's kept an even keel for a team replacing a host of departed NFL talent, he's overseen a win against Clemson with his backup quarterback, and he's kept the wolves at bay despite nearly constant controversy.

Best game: Florida State 23, Clemson 17. Winston was suspended, and that would've been enough drama on its own to make this the game of the year so far. But there was so much more. Watson's emergence in a hostile environment was exciting. The resilience of Sean Maguire, Winston's backup, in spite of early struggles was impressive. His touchdown pass to Greene to tie the game late was dramatic. Eddie Goldman's forced fumble to keep Clemson out of the end zone in the final minutes was miraculous. And, of course, Florida State's win in overtime kept the ACC alive for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Best games of the second half: Notre Dame at Florida State this week will be the pinnacle of the ACC's remaining slate, and it likely defines the season for both top-five teams. But beyond that matchup, a few more intriguing battles remain, including the Seminoles' trip to Louisville (Oct. 30), Duke and Virginia Tech in a potential division-defining battle on Nov. 15, and, of course, the annual state championship between Clemson and South Carolina to close out the regular season.

Planning for success: Duke

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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It's not a label most quarterbacks enjoy, and for Anthony Boone, the "game manager" tag is one that probably gets tossed about too easily. He did, after all, go toe-to-toe with Johnny Manziel in last year's bowl game, and he's carried the Blue Devils on his back more than once.

Still, after Duke upended Georgia Tech on Saturday, which gave the Blue Devils their first win in Atlanta in 20 years and scrambled the Coastal Division race, coach David Cutcliffe's critique -- a compliment really -- felt spot-on.

"I thought Anthony managed the game very well," Cutcliffe said.

[+] EnlargeDuke's Anthony Boone
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsDuke's Anthony Boone completed 16 of 26 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and no picks against Georgia Tech. He also rushed 10 times for 49 yards.
Game manager. That's certainly what Boone seemed to do so well against the Yellow Jackets. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and no picks. He added 49 more yards rushing, but it was the work of Josh Snead and Joseph Ajeigbe -- plus Boone's backup, Thomas Sirk, who scored twice -- that paved the road to victory on the ground.

Boone was the maestro, ensuring the perfect notes were played for Duke's offense to topple the previously unbeaten Yellow Jackets, but he wasn't asked to do much of the heavy lifting.

Six games into an uneven season, this is the role Cutcliffe would like Boone to play more often.

Boone's had his good games and his struggles, but what Cutcliffe wants his quarterback to understand is, Duke should be able to win without its quarterback playing the part of hero or goat.

"The theme for us when we're at our best, our offensive front is playing pretty consistent," Cutcliffe said. "When that works and Anthony has gotten in his groove, we're a very versatile offensive team. We can be different from week-to-week and play to different strengths."

That versatility will be crucial in this week's matchup against Virginia -- hardly a game many circled on their calendars at the outset of the season, but one that may now help shape the Coastal.

Virginia's defense has been exceptional this season, with a line that's created havoc for many a quarterback and a secondary that features veteran stars and emerging youngsters. In other words, it's not a matchup that begs Boone to play beyond his means.

"We're very aware Virginia is doing a great job," Cutcliffe said. "I think they're outstanding. They've played great defense all year long."

Still, there's a legitimate question about how good Duke's passing game can be. Just 2.8 percent of the Blue Devils' passing attempts against FBS teams have gone for touchdowns -- a number that ranks 59th out of 65 Power 5 teams and a fraction of the success rate they enjoyed at this point a year ago. Duke's adjusted QBR against FBS foes is just 53.5 -- below even Virginia, whose own QB situation has been a roller coaster. Star receiver Jamison Crowder has just 12 catches for 90 yards and no touchdowns in three matchups against Power 5 opponents.

Those numbers could add up to frustration for Boone and the Duke passing game, and could drive the quarterback to want to do more. That's exactly the danger against Virginia, Cutcliffe said.

The key for Boone is to do exactly what he need to do -- and nothing else.

"The biggest thing is what I've said all along, just trying to do too much, thinking too much, trying to go beyond what a player needs to do," Cutcliffe said of his QB. "He's very knowledgeable and takes great pride in being knowledgeable and that's awesome. But he has to remember to play the game. It was obvious to me that he was knotting himself up, and the deeper we got into the start of the season, the worse it was getting. He was getting away with it at times early with us being a good bit better than most of the teams we were playing. But when you're going to play against the people we have the rest of the way, you're going to have to be a better player. That's the bottom line."

In the loss to Miami, Boone threw 51 times -- a career high. He completed just 43 percent of his throws -- his second-worst rate as a starter. When it was over, Duke's place in the Coastal race looked bleak.

Then two weeks later, Duke looked far more prepared, Boone much better refined, and the Blue Devils climbed back into contention with a long-awaited win. There's a lesson there, Cutcliffe said.

Beating Virginia will take a little bit of everything, and not too much from the QB.

"Our guys were playing at a very high level from an effort and energy standpoint [against Georgia Tech]," Cutcliffe said. "Now we've got to build off this and do a great job of getting better at so many little things we need to do better."

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