- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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It seems like just yesterday we were wondering if Florida State could manage with a freshman quarterback, if Syracuse and Pittsburgh would adjust to their new conference, if Miami was ready to rejoin the national conversation, and if Clemson could hang with the big boys in the SEC. With 13 weeks of football now in the rearview mirror, some of those questions have been answered (this just in: Jameis Winston is good) and a few others remain. Here’s what to watch for as the ACC wraps up its regular season.
1. ACC vs. SEC: After years toiling in the spotlight of the big, bad SEC, the ACC finally has a chance to deliver a punishing blow to their neighboring conference. Florida State has a huge edge over reeling Florida, after the Gators just lost to an FCS foe. Georgia Tech won’t have as clear a path to victory against Georgia, but after QB Aaron Murray became the latest Bulldogs star to be lost to injury, the Yellow Jackets certainly enter the game much healthier. Wake Forest can salvage some enthusiasm for the season by upending Vanderbilt, though that might be a tall order if Michael Campanaro can’t play. Then there’s the swing vote in the trio of inter-conference matchups: Clemson and South Carolina. Both teams are ranked in the top 10, and a win by the Tigers could be the single most significant nonconference victory of the year for the ACC.
2. Coastal showdown: For Duke, a win secures history. It would be the Blue Devils’ first trip to the ACC title game as well as their first 10-win season. Standing in Duke’s way, however, is red-shot North Carolina, which has won five games in a row after a 1-5 start to the season. Should the Tar Heels win -- and they’re actually favored -- the Coastal Division becomes a complete mess, with as many as five teams staking a claim to a share of the division title.
3. FSU’s defense vs. Florida’s offense: It really can’t get much worse offensively for the Gators, who haven’t topped 20 points in their past six games. Meanwhile, Florida State’s defense has been making plenty of teams look bad this year. The Seminoles are allowing just 4 yards per play this season, and in its past six games have racked up 18 takeaways, including six touchdowns.
4. Boyd’s curtain call: Few quarterbacks in ACC history have accomplished more on the field than Tajh Boyd, who now owns the conference record for touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 11,000 yards in his Clemson career. And aside from a disappointing loss to Florida State, 2013 has been a banner year for Boyd, who has 29 touchdown passes and is averaging a career-high 9.4 yards per attempt. But it’s hard to shrug off that loss to FSU or the fact that Clemson won’t play for an ACC title for the second straight season. Add to that, Boyd has never beaten South Carolina as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, and there’s a large part of his legacy on the line as he prepares to take the field against the Gamecocks for the final time.
5. Hokies stay hungry: Virginia Tech opened the season 6-1, the lone loss to No. 1 Alabama. It looked like the start of a banner season in Blacksburg, but it fell apart quickly. The Hokies have lost three of four now, and much of the early season goodwill has evaporated. But here’s the thing: If Tech can beat Virginia for the 14th time in 15 seasons this week, and Duke falls to UNC on the road, it will be the Hokies heading to Charlotte for the ACC championship game.
6. Terps say goodbye: Injuries certainly unraveled Maryland’s season, but coach Randy Edsall’s crew can wrap up its final year in the ACC with a winning record by beating reeling NC State on Saturday. When the season is over, Maryland moves on to the Big Ten, replaced by Louisville in 2014. But a winning season amid so much off-field chaos would be a solid finale for Edsall and the Terps, who have already locked up bowl eligibility.
7. Donald vs. Morris: For Miami, the season has gone into a tailspin since losing star tailback Duke Johnson, leaving QB Stephen Morris as the best vestige of hope on offense. He’ll try to carry the Canes to a second straight win this week against Pitt, but the task won’t be easy. Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald is making a push for ACC defensive player of the year honors after nearly single-handedly delivering a win over Syracuse last week. For the season, Donald leads the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss, six more than his closest competitor.
8. Williams keeps climbing: With his fifth 200-yard rushing game of the season last week, Boston College’s Andre Williams crossed the 2,000-yard mark for the season. He now leads the country with 2,073 yards, nearly 500 yards more than his closest competition. In the past decade, just two FBS players have run for more -- UCF’s Kevin Smith (2,567) and Tulane’s Matt Forte (2,127), both in 2007 -- and Williams still has two more games to pad his totals.
9. Can Cuse make it 11? North Carolina and Pittsburgh became the ninth and 10th ACC teams to clinch bowl eligibility last week, and Syracuse can make it 11 with a win over Boston College on Saturday. A one-point loss kept the Orange from clinching No. 6 last week. Syracuse made it to a bowl game in two of the past three seasons.
10. Pack, Hoos face ignominy: The last time an ACC team other than Duke finished its conference slate without a win was 1995. On Saturday, that dismal fate could befall two teams: NC State and Virginia. The Wolfpack have lost seven straight games, but will try to salvage one ACC win against Maryland. Virginia is in even worse shape. It hosts rival Virginia Tech having lost 14 of its past 16 conference games and nine straight against the Hokies.
It seems like just yesterday we were wondering if Florida State could manage with a freshman quarterback, if Syracuse and Pittsburgh would adjust to their new conference, if Miami was ready to rejoin the national conversation, and if Clemson could hang with the big boys in the SEC.