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Thursday, September 26, 2013
What to watch in the ACC: Week 5

By David M. Hale

The Week 5 slate has a handful of conference showdowns on tap, but the weekend figures to have its share of mismatches, too. Here are a few storylines to watch as the ACC closes out the season's first month:

Vad Lee
Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee and the Yellow Jackets face a tough Virginia Tech defense on Thursday.
Vad Lee's big test: It's been a sterling start for the Georgia Tech QB, but the test gets much tougher this week. Lee has thrown seven touchdowns and rushed for three more through three games, and Georgia Tech's offense looks primed for a big season. But Virginia Tech's defense ranks among the nation's best thus far. The Hokies lead the ACC in rushing defense (96.5 yards per game) and have allowed just two passing plays of 25 yards or more through four weeks -- the two areas the Yellow Jackets have thrived. Georgia Tech took a big step toward establishing itself as a contender last week, but if Lee can find a way to break Virginia Tech's defensive stranglehold this week, the Yellow Jackets just might be the new favorite in the Coastal Division.

As Logan Thomas goes ...: The Hokies' offense has been brutal through four games, with Thomas shouldering the bulk of the criticism -- for good reason. He's completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes with just four TDs to go with six interceptions. But when Thomas is sharp, there's hope. On Tech's three scoring drives vs. Marshall last week, he was 10-of-13 for 106 yards. The rest of the game, he was just 8-of-10 for 75 yards. One key may be running Thomas more often. He had 23 rushing attempts against Marshall -- nearly double his total from the first three games combined.

Supporting the cause: As big as Georgia Tech's win over North Carolina last week was in the standings, it was the message Lee and others wore on wristbands designed to draw attention toward a push to reform NCAA regulations on player compensation and other issues. Coach Paul Johnson said this week that there should have been a team vote before any players took such a public stand, so it will be interesting to see if Tech's protesters take a step back or if more players -- both on the Yellow Jackets and around the nation -- step up to make a stand.

North Carolina's struggles: The Tar Heels figured to be at the top of the ACC's second tier this season, but they've hardly looked the part so far. UNC never really challenged South Carolina in a marquee nonconference opener, and the Heels blew a lead against Georgia Tech last week that puts them in an early hole in the division. Bryn Renner and the offense haven't been nearly as potent as the talent on the roster suggests, and the defense has struggled to stop the run all year. North Carolina tries to rebound against East Carolina this week, but the Pirates took Virginia Tech to the brink just two weeks ago and won't be a pushover.

More highlights from Crowder: In last week's loss, junior Jamison Crowder ran for a touchdown, caught a touchdown and returned a punt for a score -- the first time that feat had been accomplished at Duke since 1999. The Blue Devils' defense appears to be in complete disarray, but Crowder has injected enough life into the offense and special teams that Duke has at least remained competitive -- including last week's ferocious comeback attempt against Pitt. For the year, Crowder ranks among the ACC leaders in receptions (30), receiving yards (381), touchdowns (4) and all-purpose yards (668).

Keeping the faith at NC State: The Wolfpack nearly pulled the upset last week against Clemson, but concerns remain at quarterback, where Pete Thomas has yet to throw a TD pass this year. Still, NC State has kept itself afloat with a 2-1 start, and Brandon Mitchell could be back in a few weeks. The Wolfpack don't figure to be tested much against Central Michigan, and with a manageable schedule leading up to an Oct. 26 showdown against Florida State, Thomas simply needs to steady the ship and avoid catastrophe to keep NC State in the mix in the ACC.

Battle of the ground games: In the past 35 games, just four players have managed to exceed 100 yards on the ground against Florida State's defense. One of them is Boston College's Andre Williams, who is off to a strong start in 2013. He'll be the key to any potential BC upset, but the Seminoles have plenty of weapons in their backfield, too. Devonta Freeman has run for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games and ranks fourth in the nation in yards per carry. Offensive newcomer Karlos Williams has racked up 193 yards and three scores on just 17 carries so far. Overall, FSU ranks third in the country averaging 7.2 yards per rush so far this season.

Clemson building momentum: The general consensus after last week's near miss against NC State is that Clemson got lucky to escape with a win. A close call on what appeared to be a long touchdown for the Wolfpack was followed by a key turnover, swinging the momentum in a 26-14 Tigers win, but Tajh Boyd wasn't at his best and Clemson showed some vulnerability. The task against struggling Wake Forest this week will be to regain that air of invincibility, getting Boyd's Heisman campaign back on track and establishing that the Tigers are still the team to beat in the ACC.

Stephen Morris' health: The Miami quarterback left last week's blowout win over Savannah State early with a bone bruise in his right ankle, but he insists the injury isn't serious. He said he expects to be in the lineup when Miami takes on winless South Florida this week, and it could be a good chance for him to jump-start his season. While the Hurricanes are off to a 3-0 start, Morris is completing just 53 percent of his throws and has just four touchdowns to go with two INTs. USF's D hasn't been tested much through the air so far, but the unit figures to provide a bigger challenge than woeful Savannah State.

Pitt's O vs. Virginia's D: Aside from the blowout loss to Oregon -- a fate shared by many of the Ducks' opponents in recent years -- the Virginia defense has been solid, led by playmakers such as Eli Harold and Anthony Harris. But Virginia figures to be tested this week with an offense that might have playmakers to rival even Oregon's gaudy numbers. Pitt QB Tom Savage threw six touchdowns against Duke last week, while Devin Street, Tyler Boyd and James Conner all rank among the ACC's offensive leaders so far this season.