Conference play heating up across ACC

Now that the calendar has flipped to October, the race to the ACC championship game begins in earnest.

Five conference games are set for Saturday, and by the end of the day, all 14 teams will have played at least one league game. But none of that means we will have a clear picture in either division.

We could see expected front-runners emerge. Or we could begin to see the early stages of another muddled mess. Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, the Atlantic Division has finished with two teams in a tie for first three times. The Coastal has had ties atop the division twice.

Only one team has run through division play unbeaten: Virginia Tech, in 2010. So history tells us to expect chaos. Does that mean chaos ensues Saturday?

All four ranked and unbeaten ACC teams face challenges this weekend in conference games. Start in the Atlantic, where No. 3 Clemson travels to play Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, where the Orange traditionally enjoy a big home-field advantage. In fact, Syracuse has the longest home winning streak in the ACC, with six in a row.

The focus is on the quarterbacks -- Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd and Terrel Hunt, making the second start of his career. The two have combined for 16 touchdown passes this year and zero interceptions. NC State had early success slowing down the Clemson offense last month thanks to pressure up front. Syracuse plays aggressively, too, so it stands to reason this will be a big part of the game to watch.

In Tallahassee, No. 25 Maryland will try to beat No. 8 Florida State for the first time at Doak Campbell Stadium. There are many skeptics about this Terps team because of its resume to date, victories over two winless FBS teams (UConn and FIU) and a schizophrenic West Virginia team that just upset Oklahoma State.

We know both quarterbacks C.J. Brown and Jameis Winston like to run and pass. In fact, Maryland coach Randy Edsall and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher used nearly the same quote to describe the opposing signal-caller on the ACC call: "He can beat you with his legs. He can beat you with his arm." But watch for the turnover battle. Maryland has forced 13 turnovers in four games, tied for the fifth-highest total in FBS. Florida State, meanwhile, has turned the ball over just three times.

NC State and Wake Forest are not unbeaten, but each is looking for its first conference win of the season. This one might not be such a slam dunk for the Wolfpack, who have done their fair share to derail championship hopes in the ACC in seasons past. NC State has not won in Winston-Salem since 2001, and Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe is 20-3 against in-state opponents at home.

Now to the Coastal. Georgia Tech plays No. 14 Miami, 4-0 for the first time since 2004. The Hurricanes are playing their first conference game, while Georgia Tech is finishing up a tough four-game Coastal stretch that more than likely will make or break its ACC title game hopes. If the Jackets lose, they will fall to 2-2 in ACC play with losses against Virginia Tech and Miami.

But if they win, the Jackets and Canes will each have one conference loss. Further -- if North Carolina upsets Virginia Tech in the other Coastal Division game Saturday, then every team in the Coastal will have at least one loss. Division wins take on greater importance in a tiebreaker scenario, something Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson can talk about first-hand. He was involved in both Coastal ties, losing to Virginia Tech in 2008, then benefiting from Miami and North Carolina being ineligible for postseason play in 2012.

"It's kind of the way the conference unfolds. You never know because it's kind of a crap shoot on who you play on the other side of the division, as far as the teams go," Johnson said. "So it makes the division games that much more important."