ACC: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

To get Georgia Tech back to the ACC title game, Paul Johnson had to get back to his roots. To do that, the seventh-year Yellow Jackets coach needed the right quarterback to run his famed triple-option offense.

Who knew the answer to the Jackets' offensive uneasiness lied in a redshirt sophomore with no starting experience -- after a transfer few saw coming, at that?

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Peter Casey/USA TODAY SportsJustin Thomas' 15 touchdown passes are the most by a Tech QB since 2006.
Justin Thomas has proved to be the key ingredient this season for Johnson, turning in one of the ACC's top quarterback campaigns, and perhaps the most surprising one. He ascended to the top of the depth chart upon Vad Lee's transfer this past January and never really looked back. He was voted a captain by teammates within the season's first month. He has orchestrated a 9-2 campaign since. He will go into Athens this weekend leading the preseason No. 5 team in the ACC's Coastal division, looking to knock off rival Georgia. A week after that, he will enter Charlotte with a shot at knocking off defending national champion Florida State.

"I thought our quarterback was a better fit," Johnson said. "We went back to old school, what I’d done for years offensively, and we go out of the gun and did our stuff, and he’s got a great skill set for what we want to do. He’s quick, he’s been really good with reading the option. He’s an accurate passer when we get him out and he can see, and we have a couple good receivers and we’re probably more athletic."

Chief among those weapons is DeAndre Smelter, a 6-foot-3, 222-pounder who is a reliable deep threat, ranking second in the ACC in yards per catch (21.0) and, according to Thomas, "playing on a different level right now."

Thomas is quick to toss out praise like that, crediting his teammates for helping him grow up fast after news of Lee's departure broke.

"When it first happened, a lot of the guys called me up," Thomas said. "It was my time now. They supported me 100 percent. It was the type of feeling that gave me more confidence, knowing that guys around me were ready to help me."

Thomas admitted to not being completely comfortable with the playbook early on in his career. He saw action here and there last season, tallying 131 yards passing and 234 yards rushing, but he never really emerged as a legitimate threat to take Lee's job during an uneven 7-6 season.

"We did but he wasn’t quite ready I don’t think," Johnson said of considering a quarterback switch in 2013. "He’s gotten better as the year has gone on, too. He’s more confident. He’s starting to get a really good understanding of what we’re trying to do. Just like (against Clemson), he came over and before I even talked to him and he told me exactly what they were trying to do to him on the option. He’s got a pretty good understanding, pretty calm. He’s a good leader."

In that upset of the Tigers and their No. 1-ranked defense, Thomas was his efficient self: 8-of-11 passing for 102 yards and a touchdown, 11 carries for 46 yards. He has 15 touchdown passes on the season, the most by any quarterback of the Johnson era. His 827 rushing yards lead the team. His 18.61 yards per completion lead the nation.

Silencing the chorus of preseason critics has been fun. Doing this all as a quarterback has been more rewarding.

The 5-foot-11, 189-pound Thomas said he has played the position since he was 5 years old. A one-time Alabama defensive back commit out of Prattville High, the former four-star athlete eventually flipped to Johnson and the Jackets because he saw himself as a signal-caller.

His 10.79-speed in the 100 meters out of high school made him an intriguing prospect in Georgia Tech's scheme. Thomas now leads an offense that ranks fourth nationally in points per drive (3.24), one spot ahead of the Bulldogs team that the Jackets are aiming to beat for the first time since 2008, Johnson's first year.

Do that, and the undersized underclassman will gain even more attention heading into next weekend's showdown with reigning Heisman Trophy winner and fellow Alabama native Jameis Winston.

"I think just being out on the field, just playing as hard as I could, making plays for the team for us to win, just showed (teammates) that I was willing to lead them in the right direction," Thomas said.

ACC Week 14 predictions

November, 26, 2014
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Jared Shanker: In college football, there is no denying emotion plays a pivotal role, and playing for a coach and a bowl can be the tipping point for a team hoping to rally. No doubt Virginia will have no shortage of motivation against its in-state rival, but the Cavaliers are also the better team. Greyson Lambert is improving, and the Virginia defense is every bit as good as the one in Blacksburg. Virginia needs to limit mistakes, as the Cavs turned it over eight times during a four-game skid. The Hokies are struggling to create turnovers, though, which plays into UVa's favor. Mike London returns UVa to a bowl. Virginia 20, Virginia Tech 10

David Hale: If we’re slaves to whatever happened most recently, then Virginia Tech certainly looks like a lost cause. But let’s think bigger picture. The Hokies know what’s at stake here: A 22-year bowl streak, state bragging rights in a rivalry they’ve owned for a decade, perhaps the future of their longtime head coach. Is this a game where Virginia Tech is a no-show? No way. The Wake Forest game was brutal, but lessons were certainly learned. Brenden Motley will get a longer look at quarterback, and his mobility can help offset the Virginia pass rush. The ground game has actually looked better with J.C. Coleman the past two weeks. And while the Hokies clearly overlooked Wake Forest, that won’t be the case against rival Virginia. Plus, let’s not forget that, in spite of the record, Virginia Tech still features one of the most potent defenses in the country -- and it’ll give Lambert and the UVA offense fits. Virginia Tech 17, Virginia 14

Andrea Adelson: The Jackets and Bulldogs are running the ball extremely well this season, so both teams should be able to get some yards on the ground. The key in this game is going to be in the turnover category. Both teams have been excellent at taking the ball away this season. While Georgia Tech has converted 24 takeaways into 116 points, Georgia has allowed only six total points off its own turnovers. There is going to be quite the battle there. Given the way Georgia Tech has played during its winning streak, the Jackets will pull out a close one after one defensive score. Georgia Tech 35, Georgia 31

Matt Fortuna: Much like Georgia Tech, Georgia has proven its rushing attack can keep up the pace no matter who is in the backfield, as we've all seen what has happened even without the ridiculously gifted Todd Gurley. The Bulldogs' defense has greatly improved under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt this season, too, ranking 13th nationally. Has it shored up the loose ends that Florida exposed by repeatedly running on it earlier this month, to the tune of 418 yards? The Yellow Jackets' attack is different, sure, but the Dawgs have too much pride to fall to another rival, especially as they play for a chance at the SEC title game next week. Georgia 40, Georgia Tech 34

Shanker: If South Carolina manages to pull off the upset, Dabo Swinney will be hearing about it for as long as Steve Spurrier is hanging around college football. This is an absolute must-win game for Clemson, but dark clouds are already starting to form with star freshman Deshaun Watson still listed as day-to-day with a sprained knee. If Cole Stoudt starts, will he be able to take advantage of a vulnerable South Carolina defense? The Tigers have the No. 1 defense, but South Carolina is No. 18 in scoring against Power 5 competition. That means the Gamecocks could score just enough, and with Stoudt at quarterback "just enough" might be 17 points. South Carolina 17, Clemson 14

Adelson: The Tigers have relied on their defense all season, and will do it again to finally break their long losing streak to South Carolina. Clemson ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense and will make life difficult for Dylan Thompson, who is not having the type of season anybody expected. While the prospects on offense look shaky if Watson is out, Clemson has won squeakers this season with an inconsistent Stoudt behind center. As long as Clemson takes care of the football, the defense will lead the victory. Clemson 17, South Carolina 14

Hale: Strictly from a matchup standpoint, Pitt doesn’t have a distinct edge, but this game may be a question of motivation. The storyline for Miami is a familiar one right now. Just like last year, the season built to Florida State, and the Hurricanes came up short. Last year, Miami responded by losing four of six to close out the season. This year, the follow-up to the FSU game was perhaps Miami’s worst performance of the season, which certainly bodes well for Pitt. On the flip side, the Panthers are desperately seeking win No. 6 to get bowl eligible, so there’s no question which team has more to play for. Add the fact that Chad Voytik is playing his best football of the season now, and Pitt is in position to move the ball even if James Conner isn’t at 100 percent. Pitt 21, Miami 20

Fortuna: Pitt is the more desperate team here, fighting to extend its season and make a bowl game for the third straight season under third-year coach Paul Chryst. But the Panthers could be without Conner, which will put much more pressure on Voytik and the passing attack. Is Miami's defense ready to take care of business after consecutive letdowns? Its offense should not be a problem in this one. Miami 38, Pitt 24

Adelson: Everybody expects Florida to play an emotional game for outgoing coach Will Muschamp. That should serve the Gators well in the early going, and they will have opportunities to establish the run against a Florida State defensive front that has had its up and downs this season. Dante Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves and company will throw some different looks at Jameis Winston and force him out of his comfort zone. But ultimately, Winston will do what he always does -- find a way to win a close game. Florida State 28, Florida 27

More unanimous picks

Syracuse at Boston College: The Eagles were the latest team to nearly upend Florida State last week, but that hasn’t always been a recipe for success afterward. It will be interesting to see if the physical and emotional toll of that loss carries over, but Syracuse certainly hasn’t been playing good football either. BC 33, Syracuse 13

Kentucky at Louisville: The ACC’s newest rivalry game may not offer much in the way of fireworks in Year 1. Reggie Bonnafon finally looks comfortable running Bobby Petrino’s offense, and Louisville is still fighting for an Orange Bowl berth. Kentucky is desperate to get win No. 6, but the Wildcats have lost five straight. Louisville 24, Kentucky 20

NC State at North Carolina: Ready for some offensive fireworks? Both of these teams are allowing an average of more than 400 yards per game to FBS foes, and both have potentially explosive offenses. That should make for a fun rivalry matchup to end the regular season, but UNC gets the edge after playing easily its most complete game of the season last week against Duke. North Carolina 45, NC State 33

Wake Forest at Duke: Last week’s win over Virginia Tech was a fitting moment for a Wake Forest team that has continued to fight in spite of adverse circumstances all season, and the Deacons' D is legit. Meanwhile, Duke is reeling from two straight losses. This game may end up close, but it’s still hard to see Wake pulling off the upset in two straight. Duke 24, Wake Forest 10

Current standings
Shanker: 66-20
Adelson: 66-20
Fortuna: 65-21
Hale: 65-21

ACC playoff tracker: Nov. 26

November, 26, 2014
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It’s the final week of the regular season, and Florida State continues to avert disaster, and thus its playoff hopes remain alive and well. Here’s where things stand.

Florida State Seminoles

Record: 11-0 (8-0 ACC)

Rank: No. 3

Next big obstacle: vs. Florida on Saturday

Reason for optimism: As seems to be the case each week, Florida State’s biggest reason for optimism remains its record, which remains perfect -- even if FSU’s performances on the field haven’t been. The Seminoles narrowly escaped Boston College on Saturday in yet another close call, but that’s simply a narrative. If the Seminoles can knock off an SEC team in Florida this week, the argument that FSU is a team that rises in the face of adversity gets stronger.

Cause for concern: FSU’s run defense has to be a worry at this point. Boston College carried 51 times for 240 yards in a losing effort last week, mustering a 7:34 time-of-possession advantage in the process. It marked the eighth time in 11 games this season that the Seminoles have surrendered at least 150 yards on the ground -- something that happened just six times from 2011-13. Why is that such an issue? This week’s opponent, Florida, is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game versus FBS foes and toppled Georgia earlier this season on the strength of its ground game. Following the Gators, FSU gets Georgia Tech, which ranks fourth nationally in rushing.

Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Start with the teams that can still help Florida State’s strength of schedule, namely the entire ACC. Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech can all upend SEC teams, which certainly would make the ACC look better in comparison. A Tech win, in particular, would be big, with UGA ranked in the top 10 and the Yellow Jackets awaiting FSU in the ACC title game. Beyond conference status, however, FSU wouldn’t mind seeing Auburn upend Alabama, Texas knock off TCU, Oregon State upset Oregon or Ole Miss topple Mississippi State. A little chaos at the top of the polls would only make a 12-0 record look all that much more impressive for Florida State.

On the fringes: If Georgia Tech could win out by beating two top-10 teams, Yellow Jackets fans will certainly want to make their case. They’ll have an uphill battle with plenty of teams still ranked ahead of Tech, but it’s at least worth monitoring as long as the Jackets keep winning.

ACC morning links

November, 26, 2014
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Deshaun Watson's status remains up in the air midweek as Clemson readies for its regular-season finale against rival South Carolina.

"He did practice yesterday in a green jersey," coach Dabo Swinney said, according to the (Charleston) Post and Courier's Aaron Brenner. "Monday practice is a short practice. We're only out there about an hour. Today we'll find out a lot more. We'll put him in a normal jersey, and he'll practice at normal tempo with the rest of the guys and we'll see where he is.

"It really is a day-to-day thing, and I'm not trying to have some conspiracy or anything like that. We just don't know. It may be a decision that's game time. I don't know. But he is getting better each day. He had a new brace on yesterday that he seemed pretty comfortable with. So we'll see how he does today with some good, competitive work, good-on-good and stuff like that where the speed of the game is going to be a little better today."

Watson had suffered a sprained LCL and a bone bruise in his left knee early in the Tigers' 28-6 loss Nov. 15 at Georgia Tech.

Asked if Watson could start Saturday at anything less than 100 percent, Swinney said: "Well, I think, again, as long as he can do the things that we need him to do to win the game, he's our starter. I mean, he's proven that, but he's got to be able to do those things. We can't change our offense.

"He's got to be able to play and execute. He's got to be able to escape. He has to be able to run our system. Those are things that he has to demonstrate throughout the week of practice."

Elsewhere, the status of another ACC star, James Conner, also remains unclear, though it appears he was not a full participant in Tuesday's practice.


Here are the rest of your ACC links:

ACC bowl projections: Week 13

November, 25, 2014
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North Carolina earned bowl eligibility and dealt the final blow to Duke's Orange Bowl chances in Week 13, while Pitt and Virginia each kept bowl hopes alive. Virginia Tech had a shot to wrap up win No. 6, but fell to Wake Forest in ugly fashion. So with one week left, the ACC is guaranteed at least 11 bowl-eligible teams (including Notre Dame) with as many as 12 possible.

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

Note: Notre Dame takes one of the ACC's bowl slots if it is not invited to a New Year's Six bowl game.

* Bowl eligible

ACC Upset Watch: Week 14

November, 25, 2014
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It is the last regular-season weekend of the year. You know what that means: expect the unexpected.

With that in mind, plenty of teams are on Upset Watch in Week 14.

Saturday

No. 18 Georgia Tech (9-2) at No. 10 Georgia (9-2), noon, SEC Network. Line: Georgia by 13. At first glance, this line appears to be rather large considering how well Georgia Tech is playing heading into the matchup. The Jackets have won four straight, beat No. 22 Clemson and had an entire off week to prepare. They nearly pulled the upset a year ago, and have a far better team this season. Then there is the matter of how Florida gashed Georgia on the ground. Georgia Tech has been so much more effective offensively with its triple option, if it hangs onto the ball and continues to eat chunks of time off the clock, the Jackets will have an excellent shot to win.

South Carolina (6-5) at No. 22 Clemson (8-3), noon, ESPN. Line: Clemson by 4.5. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has some weird voodoo going on over Clemson. Maybe he's just in their heads. How else to explain the turnover margin during the Gamecocks' five-game winning streak? South Carolina has turned it over three times; Clemson 15. That includes a whopping six Clemson turnovers a year ago. All those mistakes have ended in pretty miserable losses. Clemson has lost each game by double digits. Given the way South Carolina has played this season, all signs point to a Clemson breakthrough. But will the Tigers have Deshaun Watson available? If not, will Cole Stoudt do enough to break the losing streak?

NC State (6-5) at North Carolina (6-5), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Line: North Carolina by 6.5. The Tar Heels are riding high off an impressive 45-20 win against Duke, but now they face their second straight rivalry game against a Wolfpack team that had a week off to prepare. Though their run defense played much better, NC State will try to continue to exploit weaknesses in that group behind Matt Dayes and Shad Thornton. The bigger question is whether the NC State defense has enough to slow down the unstoppable Marquise Williams, who has put on quite the offensive show down the stretch. This one could end up being a shootout. If that happens, anyone can win.

Florida (6-4) at No. 3 Florida State (11-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPN. Line: FSU by 7.5. You are going to hear a lot about what Ron Zook and the Gators did to the Seminoles in 2004. A few similarities are hard to ignore -- Florida had nothing to lose in that game in Tallahassee, the final one under Zook. Florida was 6-4 going into the game; Florida State was a top-10 team. They are all points to keep in mind, especially given the way Florida State has squeaked by its opponents this season. Outgoing Florida coach Will Muschamp handed Florida State its last lost. Maybe he has something up his sleeve to give the Noles another on his way out. Plus, strange things happen in this game the last few years it has ended in a "4" -- 1994, Choke at Doak; 2004, Zookered!; 2014 ???

* Note: There is no line for the Pitt-Miami game with James Conner's status up in the air. Considering Miami (6-5, 3-4) is the home team, the Canes need to be on high alert for a Pitt team (5-6, 3-4) that will be desperate to become bowl eligible. Especially given their abysmal performance last week in a loss to Virginia.

** Note II: The line for Virginia-Virginia Tech is even, so tough to put anybody on upset watch in that game. The over/under, however, is set at 40.5. I would take the under on that.
In Georgia, they call the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” because of the mutual dislike between the two schools.

The dislike remains as strong as ever, but the rivalry has lost some of its luster since Mark Richt became Georgia’s coach in 2001. The Bulldogs (9-2) are 12-1 against the Yellow Jackets (9-2) under Richt, and it will be an upset if they lose this week. Richt’s tenure is full of close games, however, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see another hotly contested matchup between the two rivals.

ESPN football writers Matt Fortuna and David Ching break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry below:

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesWhile Justin Thomas has shown an ability to throw the ball, Georgia Tech's offensive gameplan still involves pounding its opposition on the ground.
Key to victory for Georgia Tech:There is nothing fancy on the agenda of the Yellow Jackets entering Athens: They must win the turnover battle. Georgia Tech is tied for No. 9 nationally in turnover margin (plus-10); Georgia is No. 2 (plus-16). The difference between the two teams is that the Bulldogs have a pretty good defense, one that is ranked No. 13 nationally. The same cannot exactly be said for the Jackets (61st nationally), who have made up for that by regularly taking the ball away. The triple-option offense, of course, is only painful for the opposition to defend when it's efficient, as Georgia Tech can shorten the game and limit the other offense's scoring opportunities.

Key to victory for Georgia: Sure, Tech is more versatile on offense this season, but the No. 1 task in beating the Jackets is slowing down its option rushing game. Tech ranks third nationally with 327.9 rushing yards per game. Tech is better at passing -- Georgia learned that lesson the hard way last season -- but the Jackets won’t bother putting the ball in the air if their running game is moving the chains and eating clock. Georgia has to keep Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey on the sidelines as long as possible.

X-factor for Georgia Tech:Georgia Tech's offense is typically capable of beating you with its arm when you least expect it, but this year's outfit can do some serious damage in the passing game. Thomas has surprised everyone under center, and a big key to that has been his favorite target: DeAndre Smelter, a 6-foot-3, 222-pounder who is second in the ACC in yards per catch (21.0).

X-Factor for Georgia: It’s not only on the defensive front to slow down Tech’s running game and keep the Jackets’ offense on the sidelines. If the Bulldogs’ offensive line gives freshman sensation Nick Chubb (161 carries, 1,152 yards, 11 TDs) room to run and quarterback Hutson Mason can put together some long scoring drives, that would be another way to neutralize what Tech does best.

Fortuna’s favorite moment from the rivalry:It's not every day you lose the passing game battle by a 407-19 margin and still win, but that's exactly what happened to Georgia Tech in its 2008 trip to Sanford Stadium. The Jackets beat Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the following spring's NFL Draft, 45-42 behind 409 yards on the ground. It was coach Paul Johnson's first game in the rivalry, and his team came back from 16 down at the half to pull off the upset and break a seven-game losing streak in the series. It is Georgia Tech's only win in the rivalry in the last 13 years.

Ching’s favorite moment from the rivalry: I covered this game nine times and there were plenty of memorable moments on the field: Tony Taylor, Paul Oliver and Mohamed Massaquoi’s heroics in Georgia’s 2006 comeback win; the “We Run This State” game where Georgia backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey combined for 349 rushing yards in 2009; a wild 2010 contest that Georgia eventually won 42-34; last year’s double-overtime classic where Tech broke out to a 20-0 lead and the Bulldogs rallied back to win 41-34. But the moment I remember most probably also came in the 2008 game. It was when beloved radio announcer Larry Munson -- who had retired earlier that season -- made his final appearance at Sanford Stadium and Georgia’s fans chanted the 86-year-old legend’s name during an in-game ceremony honoring his four decades as the Bulldogs’ play-by-play man. It was cool to see the fans show their appreciation to a man who had enriched their lives for so many years.

Planning for success: Georgia Tech

November, 25, 2014
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For those planning to watch the Georgia Tech-Georgia game from the comforts of home, make sure all requisite snacks and libations are within arm’s reach. If both coaches have their way, this game will move quickly from start to finish.

Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Georgia’s Mark Richt are going to run the football, eat up clock and shorten the game. The result could be one of the quickest games this season, and the Yellow Jackets (second quickest) and Bulldogs (16th) average some of the shortest games in the country among Power 5 schools.

[+] EnlargeNick Chubb
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsSlowing down Nick Chubb and the Georgia running game will be a big challenge for Georgia Tech.
“That’s going to be a big part of the game -- who can hold onto the ball and who can intercept it or disrupt it through making a good, physical tackle,” Richt told reporters.

The No. 18 Yellow Jackets rank fourth in the country in average rushes per game with 54.6 attempts. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs average 42.1 attempts per game, which is the most a Georgia team has averaged since the turn of the century.

Georgia Tech has been predicated on the run since Johnson took over as coach, but the Bulldogs are not as balanced as they have been in previous seasons with first-year starter Hutson Mason, who is more limited as a passer than recent predecessors Aaron Murray and Matthew Stafford. The Bulldogs have thrown 270 passes compared to 463 rushing attempts this season.

Defense has been an issue much of the season in Atlanta, but it seems as if defensive coordinator Ted Roof has at least partially shored up Georgia Tech’s unit. Through the team’s first eight games, it allowed opponents to rush for 189 yards or more five times. In the last three games, opponents are averaging a little more than 100 rushing yards.

The rush defense will face one of its biggest tests of the season Saturday despite the Bulldogs losing Todd Gurley to a torn ACL. True freshman Nick Chubb has filled in admirably for Gurley, averaging 155 rushing yards per game over his last six games.

“Chubb’s a fantastic back,” Roof told reporters. “They’ve got a lot of fantastic backs. We know they’re going to be extremely talented and extremely explosive.”

Stopping Chubb is only half of the equation for the Yellow Jackets. They also need to be able to run the ball effectively, win on third down and control time of possession. Georgia Tech has been able to do that much of the season, and Georgia is middle of the pack in rush defense (and so is Georgia Tech). Quarterback Justin Thomas is a capable passer, but an ideal game plan would look similar to the one used against Miami: 65 rushes, 9 of 14 on third downs, and nearly 41 minutes of possession.

A stat line such as that would almost certainly give Georgia Tech its 10th win of the season, a plateau few saw the Yellow Jackets reaching. However, beating Georgia will mean more than getting to double-digit wins.

Although Johnson has silenced several local critics and is a coach of the year candidate, the naysayers will return if he loses to Georgia. Johnson has not defeated the Bulldogs since 2008, his inaugural season in Atlanta.

“It’s a big game,” Johnson told reporters. “Our fans definitely want to win the game. I think everybody involved wants to win. It’s a rival game. I tend to try to stay away from saying one game defines a program in a season. To this point we’ve had a really nice season. Probably better than most of you guys expected or thought we were going to have. And it would be the icing on the cake if we could find a way to go to Athens and win a game.”

ACC morning links

November, 25, 2014
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The Pittsburgh-Miami game might be the hardest ACC game to predict this weekend, and it is based mostly on the unknowns.

What Miami team is going to show up in Sun Life Stadium on Saturday? Will it be the one we saw in the first half against Florida State and the previous three games, or will it be the defeated, uninterested group that was beat up by a Virginia team desperately trying to make a bowl game and save coach Mike London's job?

As for the Panthers, they need running back James Conner, who exited last weekend's game with a hip injury. At his Monday meeting with the media, Pitt coach Paul Chryst had no new information on Conner, who is one of the country's top running backs.

"We'll see how he goes," Chryst said. "After the game, he felt all right. Obviously [he] was hurting."

Without Conner, who is third nationally with 1,600 yards, it is hard to envision the Panthers beating Miami and getting to a bowl game. While Pitt has a great stable of young running backs that rushed for 214 yards in the last game, it came against woeful Syracuse. While the Canes and Orange are nearly identical in rushing yards allowed per game, Miami has a significantly better offense to relieve pressure on the defense, which has been porous at times.

Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik has not shown enough this season to instill enough confidence he can put the team on his back and carry Pitt to win, so the offense might see a lot of receiver and returner Tyler Boyd, who certainly has that ability.

If Conner cannot play and Pittsburgh loses, it would be an unfortunate ending to the sophomore's season as he was a dark horse Heisman contender through the early portion of the season.

Here are a few more links:
Florida State SeminolesTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsLosing to Florida would surely knock the Seminoles out of the College Football Playoff conversation.
The story line gets regurgitated the last weekend in November, every single season. At this point, does it really need to be said just how badly the ACC has to beat its SEC rivals come Saturday?

Well, yes. Because the results carry even more significance now that we are in in the College Football Playoff era. Just look at the way the ACC has been dismissed as a conference. Unbeaten Florida State is ranked behind two one-loss teams in the only rankings that matter -- as much an indictment about the Seminoles’ close wins as it is about the perception of the ACC as a whole.

While it has been convenient for many to dismiss what Florida State has accomplished, it has been just as convenient to dismiss the accomplishments of No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 22 Louisville and No. 24 Clemson. But it may be less difficult to do so if all four teams come through and all win this weekend.

The last time Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson swept their SEC rivals was in 2000. The last time they posted a winning record against them was in 2008, when Georgia Tech and Clemson came out victorious. That also happens to be the last time both teams won their SEC rivalry game.

This might be their best shot at a sweep in years. With Kentucky-Louisville now added into the mix, the Cards, Florida State and Clemson are favored to win. All three are at home; all three are the only teams ranked in the matchup. Georgia Tech is the only underdog, though the Jackets go into their game off a bye, with a four-game winning streak under their belts.

To take it one step further, the FPI game projections show:

  • Florida State with a predicted 73 percent win percentage over Florida.
  • Louisville with a predicted 77 percent win percentage over Kentucky.
  • Clemson with a predicted 62.5 percent win percentage over South Carolina.
  • Georgia with a predicted 80 percent win percentage over Georgia Tech.

“Winning would help the league a lot but it’s going to be how does the media portray it?” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “When I was here in ’08, my first year, we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina … but nobody said much about it. It was like, ‘Oh.’ Now the next year when they beat us, it was a big deal so would it help the league? Sure. Anytime we can go head to head with the SEC and win a game it helps the league.”

Johnson brings up an excellent point. Will a potential sweep be diminished in value because they are all against SEC East teams? Georgia is the only ranked SEC squad in the group. Florida and South Carolina have been disappointments; Kentucky is not bowl eligible. Georgia is the only school among the four with a winning record in SEC play.

So the East is not even close to its counterparts in the West, creating a no-win situation. If the ACC does well in these games, people may not dish out as much credit as they should. If the ACC winds up with a losing record, get ready for more finger pointing and laughter.

If we are looking a little closer at the matchups, there are two teams that cannot afford to lose: Florida State and Clemson. If Florida pulls the upset, Florida State will be out of the College Football Playoff, the worst result imaginable for a league that only has the Noles in the mix.

The stakes are high for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, too. After beating South Carolina as interim coach in 2008, he has gone 0-5. For the first time since 2009, Clemson will be the only ranked team in the matchup. Clemson has the No. 1 defense in the nation; South Carolina has the No. 87 defense in the nation. While Deshaun Watson’s status remains up in the air, the feeling is that Clemson simply cannot afford to lose this game again, not when it has so many obvious advantages.

“The last five years, we’ve had 15 turnovers and they’ve had three,” Swinney said. “That affects everything. That affects your plays per game, it affects your time of possession, it affects the way things are called, field position, on and on and on and on. That’s definitely something we have to get changed for us to have a chance to win the game. There’s no doubt about it.”

Georgia Tech also has lost five straight to Georgia, and 12 of the last 13. Last season, the Jackets blew an early 20-0 lead and lost 41-34 in double overtime. Todd Gurley scored both overtime touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He won't play Saturday.

While Georgia Tech has a Top 25 ranking and spot in the ACC championship game, a win over Georgia would only add to an already stellar season.

“The atmosphere is different about this week because it’s a must-win game,” Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden said. “You don’t want to give them bragging rights for the next 365 days. You just have to hear it over and over again that you can’t beat them. It’s one of those games you look forward to playing.”

It’s one of those games that has to fall in the ACC win column this year.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
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What we learned in the ACC: Week 13

November, 22, 2014
Nov 22
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Thirteen weeks into the season, and we got some surprises (Wake Forest wins!) and some not-so-surprising results (Florida State narrowly escapes!). Here’s what we learned from the penultimate week of the regular season.

North Carolina is going bowling: No, the Tar Heels haven’t lived up to expectations this season, but just as they did a season ago, they’ve proven to be one of the most resilient teams in the nation. Marquise Williams turned in another phenomenal performance against Duke on Thursday, accounting for four touchdowns in a 45-20 win that eliminated the Blue Devils from the Coastal Division race, returned the Victory Bell to Chapel Hill, and officially made UNC bowl eligible for the second straight season.

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsLouisville's victory over Notre Dame on Saturday kept the Cardinals alive for a New Year's Six bowl appearance.
Georgia Tech wins the Coastal: From rumblings about Paul Johnson’s job security in August to a division title in November, it’s been a stellar season for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets actually had Week 13 off in preparation for another rivalry showdown against Georgia, but thanks to Duke’s Thursday night loss to North Carolina, Johnson’s crew officially wrapped up the Coastal and a trip to Charlotte to face Florida State in the ACC Championship game. Tech’s players are, of course, clearly focused on upending Georgia for just the second time since 2000, but the matchup for the conference title promises to be as intriguing as, perhaps, any in ACC championship game history.

The battle for the Orange Bowl is heating up: Sure, there’s no longer any drama about who’ll make it to Charlotte, and FSU is the league’s only chance at the playoff, but the question of which ACC team will take its turn in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day is awfully interesting. First off, FSU needs to make the playoff -- and after another close call against Boston College, that’s certainly not etched in stone. But if the Seminoles go to the playoff, then the three-team battle between Georgia Tech, Louisville and Clemson for a trip to South Florida could be awfully tight. Tech is currently the highest ranked of the group, but it’s got two games against top-10 teams remaining. Clemson currently would be next up, but it’s been a long time since the Tigers have beaten South Carolina -- their Week 14 foe. And then there’s Louisville, still alive for a shot after narrowly knocking off Notre Dame 31-28. The highest-ranked team after the ACC title game gets its ticket punched.

Wake Forest doesn’t roll over: It’s been a brutal season in Winston-Salem. Wake’s offense isn’t just bad, but historically so. It would’ve been easy for the team to have cashed it in -- particularly the veterans who won’t be around to see the fruits of this rebuilding project. But it’s a huge credit to Dave Clawson’s motivational tactics and the pride of the players on the roster that they continue to fight. The Demon Deacons couldn’t muster much offense again Saturday, but their stout D overwhelmed Virginia Tech and they prevailed 6-3 in double overtime. Wake certainly hasn’t been a great team this season, but four of its six conference losses were by 14 points or less and it’s played every game tough. That bodes well for the future for Clawson and Co.

Bowl bids on the line in Week 14: With Virginia’s dominant 30-13 win over Miami, Virginia Tech’s loss to Wake and Pittsburgh’s 30-7 drubbing of Syracuse, there will be three ACC teams playing for bowl eligibility in the final week of the season. Pitt gets its shot against reeling Miami, while UVA and Virginia Tech face off in their annual rivalry game, with one gaining that crucial sixth win and the other facing a long, ugly offseason. With a win, Mike London could secure another year on the sideline for the Cavaliers. With a loss, Frank Beamer’s future is going to move from debatable topic to outright controversy.

ACC mailblog

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
5:05
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Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Scott C. in Savannah writes: Since Duke got blasted by UNC, are the planets still in a position that if Georgia Tech loses both games to Georgia and FSU in the ACC Championship game AND Clemson wins out that they could leap back into the Orange Bowl? The way I understand this issue is assuming FSU wins out and goes to the playoff that the highest rank ACC team in the Committee Poll would fill in. With Clemson on 4 places below GT that would seem to me a real chance for Clemson to catch GT.... What are you observations?

Matt Fortuna: Scott, Clemson still remains very much alive for a spot in the Orange Bowl, given the scenarios you mentioned. Georgia and FSU are two tough opponents for Georgia Tech to beat, and if the Yellow Jackets drop both -- and if FSU wins its three remaining games to clinch a playoff spot -- then yes, the next-highest ranked ACC team goes to the Orange Bowl. If Clemson wins out, then the Tigers have a shot to leap a Georgia Tech team that will have lost two more games. You know who else might, though? No. 24 Louisville, which still has games against Notre Dame and Kentucky.


Nathan Ford in Louisville, Ky., writes: I'm curious as to why Gerod Holliman isn't getting any Heisman attention. I understand he is a defensive player and the award is geared more towards QB's and RB's, but he is close to tying and may even break a long-standing NCAA interception record. Seems like someone should at least throw him a shout-out in the Heisman discussions!!

Matt Fortuna: Nathan, I do not disagree. And I would even take running backs out of the equation you just mentioned, since the Heisman seems to be primarily a quarterback award at this point. I'm not saying Gerod Holliman is the best player in the country, but yes, a guy on the verge of breaking an NCAA interception record deserves more national recognition. That rarely happens for a defensive player unless he is on a team in position to win a championship, as Manti Te'o was for the 2012 Notre Dame team or Charles Woodson on the 1997 Michigan team.


Mark Goodman in Chicago: Love your coverage of ND football. Not to be picky, but Lombard and Utupo are no red-shirt seniors; each is a grad student, having already received their Notre Dame undergraduate degree. I know you were probably using the red-shirt senior label to not confuse readers who are not used to college football players getting degrees, let along getting them on time in 4 years.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mark. And as a wise writer once said: "A rose by any other name ..." Neither player played in his freshman year. Therefore, each redshirted.

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Matt Fortuna: Bob, I'd say right now that there are only two men in the discussion: Jimbo Fisher and Paul Johnson. The coach of the best team rarely gets as much credit as he deserves, because it is assumed that he has the most to work with and is therefore just taking care of business. (Just look at Jim Tressel, who never won Big Ten coach of the year despite dominating that league.) The fact remains, though, that Fisher has led the Seminoles to 26 straight wins. Johnson entered the season seemingly on the hot seat, had a rash of offseason departures and now has his team in the ACC title game with a chance to knock off Fisher and the Noles. I cannot think of a single soul who saw this coming.

Georgia Tech celebrates Coastal title

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
11:59
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Georgia Tech is off this week, but about 60 players gathered at the team's facilities, where the staff set up a projector to watch Thursday night's North Carolina-Duke game.

The cheers rang out each time North Carolina scored.

They rang out again as Duke fumbled away several early possessions.

In Atlanta, there were as many Tar Heel fans as there were in Chapel Hill, and when the 45-20 UNC victory came to a close, Georgia Tech was ready to celebrate as the ACC's Coastal Division champions.

"It was pretty good just watching some football and knowing each time North Carolina scored, it was a good feeling," Tech defensive end Adam Gotsis said. "It was good to see them get the win for us. We needed that one."

With Duke's loss, Georgia Tech officially won the division for the second time in three years. Gotsis, who is from Australia, said he was getting texts from friends and family back home -- where it was already 3 in the afternoon -- as soon as the game ended.

It was obviously a moment worth celebrating, even in the unorthodox scenario of a Thursday night during a bye week.

This marks the fourth time Georgia Tech has won the division, but it might be the most unlikely.

To open the year, the Yellow Jackets were picked to finish sixth in the division, with pundits wondering whether Paul Johnson's early magic had worn off. But Georgia Tech has done nothing but prove the doubters wrong all season.

"All the guys are even more fired up," Gotsis said. "But we've got to take care of this one [against Georgia] and then move on to the next one."

The Yellow Jackets' offense is potent, ranked 10th nationally in yards per play and 14th nationally in scoring. Johnson's option attack is rushing for more yards per game this season (328) than in any year since he arrived in Atlanta. And with this year's ACC championship game opponent, Florida State, struggling to stop the run at times -- the Seminoles have allowed seven out of 10 opponents to rush for at least 150 yards -- the matchup in Charlotte on Dec. 6 could be intriguing.

But if there's been a key to Georgia Tech's run to the Coastal Division title, it's been a resurgent defense. The unit struggled mightily early in the season, but in its last four games -- all wins -- Tech has allowed just eight touchdowns and created 14 turnovers.

"We've come a long way," Gotsis said. "It's easy to say that, but you can really feel it on the field every day."

Of course, for Tech there's still the sizable obstacle of a rivalry game on the horizon. The Yellow Jackets wrap up the regular season against Georgia next week, hoping to knock off the 10th-ranked Bulldogs for just the second time since 2000.

But in two weeks, Florida State awaits, and Tech knows it will have its chance to finish proving the doubters wrong and walk away with its first conference title since 2009. It would also provide a bit of retribution for Georgia Tech's veterans who were on the field when FSU beat them for an ACC title in 2012.

"It's an exciting feeling knowing we get to go to that," Gotsis said. "We're a better team this year, and we've got some better players. So we'll see what we can do."

ACC morning links

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
8:00
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If Clemson coach Dabo Swinney goes to Florida, it might force Steve Spurrier to retire. How would the Ol' Ball Coach handle Swinney, the preferred target of Spurrier's snipes, becoming the coach at the school where Spurrier won a Heisman and national title?

All joking aside, The Clemson Insider is reporting Swinney is on the short list of Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley, although Swinney said he has not spoken to anyone at Florida.

At the very least, it certainly makes sense Swinney's name would at least be brought up, whether in the media or behind closed doors in Gainesville, Florida. He's eliminated much of the underachieving stigma at Clemson, where the fan base expects conference championships and New Year's Day bowl games. He cut his teeth as an offensive assistant and had some of the country's top offenses at Clemson. Defensively, Swinney has coached some poor units but credit him for making a great hire in Brent Venables and turning it around. Clemson ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense.

From a recruiting standpoint, there are not many better recruiters than Swinney, who is only 45. Clemson's 2015 class is ranked No. 3, and Swinney told reporters he's putting together "the best recruiting class we have ever had." That is saying something, too, considering he pulled Deshaun Watson out of the SEC's backyard last cycle and has signed a top-15 class the last four years.

Despite Clemson's campus being six hours from the Florida border, Swinney has been wildly successful recruiting the state. Four Floridians ranked in the ESPN 300 are committed to Clemson, and since 2011 he has received 15 four-star commitments from Florida prospects. Sammy Watkins was one of them.

Of course, with two games left and an Orange Bowl berth still a possibility -- the program's third in four seasons -- Swinney is not entertaining any questions about his name being linked to Florida.

"We are not even going to acknowledge that kind of stuff," he told reporters. "Ya'll know I love Clemson.

"We will see how it all pans out, but that is where our focus is -- great finish, great bowl game, great recruiting class and build Clemson into a College Football Playoff team so we can get to where we want to be."

Breathe easy, Spurrier.

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