ACC: Synjin Days

ACC viewer's guide: Week 14

November, 28, 2014
Nov 28
10:00
AM ET
It seems like just yesterday we were kicking off the ACC season, but here we are at the finish line. Week 14 may be the end of the regular season, but there’s still plenty of intrigue -- from crucial rivalry showdowns to three teams playing for bowl eligibility. Here’s what to watch for.

Friday, 8 p.m.

Virginia at Virginia Tech, ESPN, #UVAvsVT

Few rivalries in the country have been as lopsided as this one, with the Hokies winning 10 in a row and 14 of the last 15. But this year’s matchup feels entirely different. UVa is coming off an emphatic win over Miami, a win that helped save Mike London's job. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is coming off one of its most embarrassing losses in history, a 6-3 defeat to Wake Forest. Changes on the Hokies’ staff appear all but certain at this point. To add to the intrigue, both teams are playing for bowl eligibility, with the winner getting that crucial sixth win and the loser on to what promises to be a tumultuous offseason.

Saturday, noon

Georgia Tech at Georgia, SEC Network, #GTvsUGA

The Yellow Jackets toppled Georgia in Athens in 2008 in Paul Johnson’s first season as coach, and it appeared that perhaps the power structure in the state was beginning to change, but in the five years since, it’s been all UGA. In last year’s game, Tech led 20-0 in the second quarter only to lose 41-34 in double overtime. This year, the Jackets’ players are hoping to finally get some revenge, and with Tech playing its best football of the year, an upset is certainly possible. Georgia fell to Florida last month when it couldn’t stop the ground game, and Tech figures to employ the same philosophy this weekend.

Kentucky at Louisville, ESPN2, #UKvsLOU

There’s plenty on the line for both sides in the ACC’s newest rivalry game against the SEC. Kentucky has lost five straight, but a win here could get Mark Stoops’ squad bowl eligible. Louisville’s offense is finally clicking, as Reggie Bonnafon looks comfortable in his role as starter. A win for the Cardinals would keep them in the hunt for an Orange Bowl berth. But, of course, state bragging rights may top all of those goals.

South Carolina at Clemson, ESPN, #SCvsCLEM

Like Virginia and Georgia Tech, Clemson has been on the wrong side of a lopsided rivalry in recent years. Dabo Swinney beat South Carolina to secure the head-coaching job at Clemson in 2008, but he hasn’t been able to repeat the feat since. But freshman QB Deshaun Watson could return for this one, and he offers hope. Add to that a South Carolina defense that offers little in the way of a pass rush and has been gouged repeatedly this year, and things certainly look a bit more positive for the Tigers. It will be up to Vic Beasley & Co. to quell the South Carolina ground game, but Clemson fans are clearly hoping this is the year the Gamecocks’ run comes to an end.

12:30 p.m.

Syracuse at Boston College, ESPN3, #CUSEvsBC

Tyler Murphy & Co. nearly upended defending champ Florida State last week in Tallahassee, but fell just short. Whether the emotions of a close loss in a big game carry over may be the biggest factor in this matchup. Syracuse is reeling, with an offense that has mustered just 40 points in its last four games -- all losses. BC’s defense is one of the more underrated units in the country, which won’t make it easy for the Orange to bust out of their offensive slump, and Murphy’s big-play ability could be the spark for BC’s seventh win of the season.

NC State at North Carolina, ESPN3, #NCSTvsUNC

North Carolina had plenty to celebrate last week, knocking off rival Duke for the first time in three years, taking back the Victory Bell and earning bowl eligibility. Can the Tar Heels keep that momentum going against another rival in the regular-season finale? UNC has won four of five and played its best defensive game of the year a week ago, while NC State hasn’t beaten a bowl-eligible team since its opener against Georgia Southern. This could be a nice feather in North Carolina’s cap, but a win for NC State would be a signature victory for Dave Doeren.

3:30 p.m.

Florida at Florida State, ESPN, #UFvsFSU

It’s been exactly two years since Florida State last lost a game, and that one came at home against rival Florida. The two programs have trended in opposite directions since, with Jimbo Fisher poised for a run at a second straight national championship, while Will Muschamp will be coaching his final game for the Gators after resigning two weeks ago. Still, FSU hasn’t shown a propensity for blowing away anyone this season, and Florida has the ground game to frustrate the Seminoles’ D and the secondary to test Jameis Winston. A decade ago, Ron Zook upended FSU after he’d been axed by Florida. Muschamp will try to do the same this time around.

7 p.m.

Wake Forest at Duke, ESPNU, #WAKEvsDUKE

The record certainly won’t wow anyone this season, but Wake Forest has, in some ways, been one of the most impressive teams in the ACC. With huge holes across the offense, points have been at a premium all season, and the Deacons knew going into the year it would be an uphill battle. But they’ve continued to fight all season, which is a tribute to the work being done behind the scenes by head coach Dave Clawson. The work paid off with a 6-3 win over Virginia Tech last week -- Wake’s first conference victory in more than a year -- but the test is much tougher this week. Duke enters this game riding a two-game losing streak, and David Cutcliffe will surely want to send his seniors out with a win in their last home game.

Pittsburgh at Miami, ESPN2, #PITTvsMIA

James Conner's availability looks doubtful, which means it’ll be up to Chad Voytik and Tyler Boyd to spark Pitt’s offense. The bigger question, however, may be whether Miami is motivated to finish up the season. Last week’s game against Virginia was as listless as the Hurricanes have looked all year, and another poor showing in the regular-season finale could ratchet up those hot-seat rumors for Al Golden. There’s no question which side wins this game on paper, but with Pitt playing for a bowl game and Miami simply playing out the string, motivation could be the differentiating factor.
The window in coach Paul Johnson's office overlooks Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Because of the ongoing construction on the practice field, the Yellow Jackets have spent the offseason doing their individual workouts in the stadium -- in full view of their head coach.

This offseason, Johnson liked the view more than usual.

“I think that the whole attitude is better," he said. "A lot of the little things, from breakfast checks to class checks, extra lifting, extra workouts that they are putting in on their own. I can see out my window and there are always people out there working.”

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Nelson Chenault/US PresswirePaul Johnson says the more modest expectations for his team can be "a good thing."
The players didn't have much choice if they have any hopes of improving upon last year's 6-7 season. Georgia Tech's season was derailed the second former quarterback Joshua Nesbitt broke his forearm against Virginia Tech, but the Jackets' troubles ran deeper than that last year. The offense couldn't hold onto the ball, the special-teams units were filled with blunders, and the defense under first-year coordinator Al Groh?

It was just like everything else, Johnson said, "just kind of so-so. We weren't really good at anything."

With only 11 starters returning, competition will be the theme this spring. Georgia Tech returns just 37.9 percent of its points from a year ago (128 of 338). The Jackets are in search of their next 1,000-yard rusher at B-back, and still in need of a go-to receiver. The good news is that the top two receivers return, the A-back position is deep, and all three starters return on the defensive line. There are also a few position changes to watch, including Daniel Drummond's move from B-back to linebacker, sophomore J.C. Lanier moving from defensive line to offensive line, and quarterback David Sims switching to B-Back.

One of the more intriguing position battles will be at B-back, where Preston Lyons, Richard Watson and Sims are all competing for the majority of the reps. Redshirt freshman Charles Perkins practiced last year with both the B-backs and A-backs. Johnson said he's not worried about the position, but knows everyone will be watching the quarterback battle, where it's Tevin Washington's job to lose.

“He is the starter coming in, and I think that he has earned that," Johnson said. "It is very similar to a lot of the positions, the depth chart is always fluid. He has been taking snaps. This is why I try not to get too hyped up on the freshmen. We are excited about a group of them, but until they do it on the field consistently, I don’t know that you hype them all that much. Synjyn [Days] has a lot of ability, but he has to beat Tevin out. It’s Tevins’ job.”

Johnson said the players worked a lot on team building and chemistry in the offseason -- "probably more so than we have in the past" --and as a result, the work ethic has been better. Johnson said it's still too early to tell how much better this year's team will be.

"We'll have a better idea coming out of spring," Johnson said. "I like our athleticism. I think we're going to be all right. I think it's going to be good to be kind of -- nobody has very high expectations for us, and I think that's a good thing. It's kind of the way we were the first year I was here."

In 2008, Johnson's first season, the Yellow Jackets finished 9-4 and tied for the Coastal Division lead, despite critics who said his spread option offense wouldn't work at the BCS level. He has since won an ACC title and has proved it can.

The next challenge is to do it again.

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