NCF Nation: Pete Thomas

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Bye-bye, Clint and Jacob. Hello, Jacoby, Jake, Michael and Tyler?

You're forgiven if this entire exercise seems foreign. But at least 10 of the ACC's 14 teams will start new faces under center when games kick off next week. And there is a good chance that four of those 10 will have quarterbacks who began their college careers elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJake Heaps
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerNot long after playing in Kansas' spring game in April, Jake Heaps transferred to Miami.
Two former Florida State quarterbacks could square off in Week 1 in Atlanta during an SEC-Big 12 matchup. Two former Florida quarterbacks are set to start in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Then there are a pair of downtrodden Coastal powers, both of which may be starting quarterbacks who did not even arrive on campus until this summer.

"I really don't know," Miami coach Al Golden said of the surplus of ACC quarterback transfers. "We liked where we were in the spring, and clearly Ryan [Williams] went down the week before the spring game. It's really not a function of not being confident in the guys that are on campus. It's more a function of just wanting to get a guy that has been in the game and has the experience."

Golden acknowledged the quarterback market has been busier than usual, particularly in his league. He brought in former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps this summer after Williams, the Hurricanes' No. 1 quarterback, suffered a right ACL injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. (Williams, naturally, began his career elsewhere, at Memphis.)

Heaps, eligible immediately as a graduate transfer, is battling true freshman Brad Kaaya to start Miami's opener.

"I think the quarterback position has grown in terms of talent over the last few years," said Heaps, who set several freshman records at BYU in 2010 before losing his job both with the Cougars and later at Kansas. "There’s a lot of great, quality quarterbacks in college football right now and they all want a chance to play. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of these guys transfer. They’re in their situation but they know they can play somewhere else so they make those moves and try and find the best situation for them and in some cases it works out, in others it doesn’t. Just knowing they have that opportunity is first and foremost.

"Sometimes things just don’t work out. Recruiting is the way it is and sometimes a situation isn’t what you think it will be when you get there. It’s been a unique trend in the last little bit, but I think if a guy has an opportunity to go play, he should go explore that."

Likewise, fellow Coastal member Virginia Tech turned to the free-agent route following an underwhelming spring from its three quarterbacks, welcoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (and two true freshmen) to the race to replace Logan Thomas and kick-start an offense in need of a jolt after just 15 wins in the past two seasons. In an odd twist, Brewer, who has two seasons left to play after graduating from Texas Tech, was recommended to the Hokies' staff by Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who coached Brewer back at Lake Travis (Texas) High.

Brewer brings with him a nearly 71 percent completion percentage from his limited action with the Red Raiders, including 440 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeEx-Florida quarterback Jacoby Brissett enters this season as NC State's starter.
"Everyone needs success in their life, and if you're in a place where you're behind somebody or whatever you're not going to have it," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "To me, my whole thing is everyone needs success, and wherever you can do that, some of the guys that come through there, go somewhere where you can have success."

On the other side, in the more daunting Atlantic, a pair of second-year coaches are turning to former Gators quarterbacks to command their offenses.

Boston College coach Steve Addazio goes back with Tyler Murphy, a fellow Connecticut native whom Addazio had initially recruited to Gainesville, Florida, during his time as an assistant there. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State shortly after coach Dave Doeren was hired there, sitting out last season and taking enough initiative behind the scenes to earn the starting nod before spring ball this year.

“Last year we brought in Brandon Mitchell [from Arkansas] through the one-year loophole, and then at the end of the year, Pete Thomas and Manny Stocker left to go to [Louisiana-Monroe and UT-Martin]," Doeren said. "While that was going on, Jacoby transferred here from Florida. So I’ve seen about all of it that can go around. It’s just part of what recruiting is now. Guys want to play and people don’t want to wait their turn much anymore."

Murphy, who transferred in January, has one year to add some pizzazz to an Eagles' offense looking to spread the field more after last season's run-heavy approach. He spoke often with Brissett (who has two years left at NC State) back when both were still weighing their options when departing Florida.

The familiarity was more than enough to reunite Murphy with Addazio, who said a guy like Murphy probably should have gone to BC in the first place.

"Being a New England guy and growing up around BC, I watched a lot of BC and Matt Ryan in the early 2000s," Murphy said. "So it feels good to be a part of this institution, this program and I'm looking forward to the season."

Florida State could see a pair of its former quarterbacks start against each other next week, as Jake Coker transferred to Alabama one year after Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was supportive of both, with Trickett being familiar with WVU (his dad used to coach there before moving to FSU) and Coker heading to his home-state program after backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Fisher likened the rash of quarterback departures to that of college basketball transfers, because both are possession-dominated athletes.

The graduate-transfer rule, popularized by Russell Wilson three years ago, has only added to that. And, in many ways, it has been a boon for both sides.

"[It] gives some opportunities for guys that are worried about situations like Tyler's," Addazio said, referring to Murphy's injury-shortened 2013. "He's like, 'I've got one shot at this thing. I want to go where I feel like I've got the best opportunity to be the starter.' So you're seeing a lot of this right now. I like this opportunity."



RALEIGH, N.C. -- If he’s being honest, the question makes Jacoby Brissett a bit uncomfortable. He hears it routinely -- from friends, from fans, from media eager to make him the headliner in NC State’s revitalization project -- and after three years waiting to be anointed the starter, he should be thrilled.

Still, every time someone asks Brissett what it feels like now that he’s the man -- the starting quarterback and offensive ring leader -- he feels compelled to downplay the significance of it all.

“I’m not big into that stuff,” Brissett said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t have to say that.’ I’m competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.”

It’s no surprise Brissett feels like he’s playing from behind. Three years ago, he got a taste of life as the starting quarterback at Florida. That door closed quickly though, and after a year on the bench in 2012, he transferred to NC State. NCAA rules forced Brissett to redshirt, so he spent last year again waiting on the sideline for his chance.

When a 3-9 campaign marked by offensive struggles concluded in December, NC State coach Dave Doeren officially put an end to Brissett’s wait, tabbing him as the Wolfpack’s starter for 2014. But Doeren’s decision wasn’t about finally giving Brissett his chance. It was an acknowledgement of everything the quarterback had done while he was waiting for it.

“The way he plays is part of it,” Doeren said, “but the way he interacts and leads is a big part of it.”

I'm not big into that stuff. I'm like, 'You don't have to say that.' I'm competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

-- NC State QB Jacoby Brissett on the hype about him being the starting QB
Brissett came to NC State just a month after Doeren arrived. He’d been frustrated by his back-up role at Florida, and he needed a fresh start. A highly touted recruit out of high school, Brissett was again a hot commodity, but NC State -- and Doeren -- felt right.

“I was actually looking at West Virginia, but every time I was there, the coach kept saying something about [former quarterback] Geno [Smith],” Brissett said. “I’m like, I’m not Geno. I won’t be Geno. I just wanted to be Jacoby, and I feel like this is a place I can be Jacoby.”

That comfort level didn’t manifest overnight, however.

With just two quarterbacks on the roster last spring, Brissett got plenty of early work with the first-team offense, wowing coaches and teammates, but he was reluctant to take a leadership role. No matter how well he performed, his script for 2013 was already written. It was someone else’s team, and he didn’t want to muddy the waters.

When spring ended, however, it was clear to Doeren that he’d found his quarterback of the future. He called Brissett into his office and gave his quarterback a clear mandate.

“The guys need to know it will become your offense by how you practice, how you act, how you are in the locker room,” Doeren told him. “You can’t just be a ghost.”

Brissett offered assurances that wouldn’t happen, but even Doeren was surprised by how thoroughly he grabbed the reins.

Over the summer, Brissett helped organize practices. In the weight room and film room, he was a fixture. Once the season began, Brissett took his role on the scout team seriously, often frustrating NC State’s first-team defense in the process. It was clear the Wolfpack had a budding star.

“The other quarterbacks didn’t really look anyone off,” NC State safety Hakim Jones said. “With Jacoby, you never know what to expect from him. He seemed a lot more advanced.”

Then there was the famed road trip to Tallahassee, which is everyone’s favorite evidence of Brissett’s command of the team.

NC State had a road date with Florida State last October, but because he was a first-year transfer, Brissett couldn’t travel with the team. So he hopped in his car, made the 600-mile drive alone, and arrived -- complete with speeding ticket in Tallahassee -- in time for the game. Teammates were shocked to see him, but the image of Brissett still rallying his troops after NC State fell behind 42-0 at halftime is what stuck.

“Since he cared and he’s not even playing, it let us know it’s a serious matter, and we had to step it up,” receiver Bryan Underwood said.

For all Brissett’s emotion from the sideline, NC State’s offense was a mess throughout much of last season. Starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, an athletic runner, broke his foot in the opener. His backup, Pete Thomas, was a pure pocket passer, and Doeren was forced to adjust his game plan on the fly. The result was an enigmatic approach, and the Wolfpack never fully gelled around either QB.

This season, things are different, Doeren said. Brissett isn’t the dual-threat nightmare Doeren had in Jordan Lynch at Northern Illinois, but he can make plays with his legs. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he’s a physical threat with an arm to match. NC State’s receiving corps is young, but Brissett has already established a standard he expects the group to meet. Even before Doeren made it official, the Wolfpack knew Brissett was in charge.

“His skill set is obviously good, and we all know that,” Underwood said. “But outside of throwing the ball and learning the plays, he’s that guy that we can say, he’s going to get us into shape.”

Underwood said he sees aspects of former Wolfpack QBs Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon -- both now starting in the NFL -- in Brissett, and that’s just the beginning of the praise for NC State’s new starter.

Fans get their first chance to see him in action Saturday when NC State holds its annual spring game, and the expectations are high. Brissett understands that, too. The wait was long, but it also served as the perfect preparation for what’s ahead.

“When you’re starting, it’s about making sure that everybody around knows why you’re quarterback,” Brissett said, “and make sure you’re being an example to look up to.”
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
1. Back to football on Michael Sam for a moment. Even as SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the Missouri defensive end is projected as a middle-round pick because he hasn’t shown the flexibility or the lateral movement that NFL scouts want at that position. From what I am told of his work at the Senior Bowl, he had trouble changing direction. Sam’s strengths: good hands, which are critical to his demonstrated ability to get off blocks.

2. What a year the California Golden Bears have had: a new coach and a new coaching staff, a 1-11 record, with the victory coming against an FCS team, an average losing margin of 28 points in the Pac-12, a revamped coaching staff, massive debt, dwindling crowds, and all of that pales in comparison to the death of defensive end Ted Agu after he collapsed during conditioning on Friday. It simply has to start getting better.

3. The graduate-and-transfer rule that Jacob Coker (Florida State to Alabama) and Max Wittek (USC to …?) are using is eight years old, and it seems to me that football coaches are finally accepting it. I like what North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren said when graduate quarterback Pete Thomas decided to transfer. “I have really enjoyed coaching him and want him to be successful as a player and in life. Going forward I will do anything I can to help him through his transition as a transfer.” Here’s hoping Thomas has as much success as the last Wolfpack quarterback to use the rule: Russell Wilson.

ACC predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
9:00
AM ET
Hard to believe that only two weeks remain in the regular season. Andrea is clinging to a one-game lead on Heather in the overall predictions standings at 71-20, after they each went 4-2 last week. Neither saw Maryland coming into Blacksburg, Va., and upsetting Virginia Tech. Bet we were not alone there.

On to the picks!

OLD DOMINION (8-3) at NORTH CAROLINA (5-5), noon, ESPN3. #ODUvsUNC. The Tar Heels are going for their fifth straight win and bowl eligibility against a team that is 0-2 against ACC competition already this year. Old Dominion has put up some points this season, but the Tar Heels' D has been vastly improved in this recent winning streak and will be able to shut the Monarchs down. With another punt return for score, Ryan Switzer would tie the ACC single-season record.

AA picks: North Carolina 40, Old Dominion 17

HD's pick: North Carolina 44, Old Dominion 24

DUKE (8-2, 4-2) at WAKE FOREST (4-6, 2-5), noon, ESPN2. #DUKEvsWF. Before winning last season, Duke had lost 12 straight games to the Deacs. But the Blue Devils today are the superior program, with better athletes all the way around. They have successfully used two quarterbacks all season, and their defense is filled with young talent and playmakers at linebacker. Duke is 3-0 on the road and should pick up another win against an offensively challenged Deacs team still trying to find some answers with Michael Campanaro out.

AA picks: Duke 35, Wake Forest 20

HD's pick: Duke 24, Wake Forest 21

CITADEL (5-6) at No. 7 CLEMSON (9-1), noon, ESPN3. #CITvsCLEM. It's senior day at Clemson, giving the Tigers the opportunity to honor Tajh Boyd and his fellow seniors. The question is just how much Boyd will play after bruising his collarbone last week, especially with a big game looming next week against South Carolina. Coach Dabo Swinney says he prefers to have an FCS opponent in this slot, giving the Tigers ample time to prepare for their in-state nemesis.

AA picks: Clemson 56, The Citadel 3

HD's pick: Clemson 45, The Citadel 10

VIRGINIA (2-8, 0-6) at MIAMI (7-3, 3-3), noon, ESPNU. #UVAvsMIA. Miami's issues against UVa are common knowledge, so this game sets up to be closer than what some might anticipate. Plus, the Hurricanes have lost three straight after a 7-0 start and have seen their defense drop off considerably. Virginia does not scream offensive juggernaut, but neither did Virginia Tech and the Hokies racked up 42 points in a win two weeks ago. The Hoos have a solid back in Kevin Parks, No. 3 in the ACC in rushing, and a good tight end in Jake McGee, who will make some plays, but ultimately, Stephen Morris and the Miami offense will make a few more plays to win.

AA picks: Miami 28, Virginia 27

HD's pick: Miami 34, Virginia 24

EAST CAROLINA (8-2) at NC STATE (3-7), ESPN3. #ECUvsNCST. The Pirates took down North Carolina earlier this year, nearly beat Virginia Tech, and go into this game as the favorites. NC State has looked like a ragged bunch, losing six straight in its worst season since 2006. There is no doubt East Carolina has the much better quarterback, as Shane Carden has turned in an outstanding season. But NC State is going to find a way to dig deep and come out with a win thanks to a few big plays from its pass game.

AA picks: NC State 28, East Carolina 24

HD's pick: East Carolina 41, NC State 14: ECU is No. 10 in the country in scoring offense at 41.5 points per game, and Carden leads the No. 8 passing offense in the country. The Pirates undoubtedly have the edge at quarterback, as NC State has struggled with both Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas. The two have combined for 15 interceptions and five touchdowns. Carden threw that many TDs by himself last week. If North Carolina was embarrassed by the Pirates at home, there’s no reason to believe the Wolfpack will fare much better. ECU is a solid eight-win team that, unlike NC State, is bowl eligible.

PITT (5-5, 2-4) at SYRACUSE (5-5, 3-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #PITTvsCUSE. This game is a toss-up, as is nearly every league game these two teams have played this season (excluding Clemson and Florida State). Both are coming off losses, and both need one win for bowl eligibility. The problem for the Panthers is they have no real identity on offense. Syracuse does, and that is pounding the football. The Orange will get enough out of their run game and keep Aaron Donald at bay to win a close one.

AA picks: Syracuse 24, Pitt 23

HD's pick: Syracuse 21, Pitt 17

ALABAMA A&M (4-7) at GEORGIA TECH (6-4), 1:30 p.m., ESPN3. #AAMUvsGT. Like Clemson and Florida State, Georgia Tech also gets a warm-up game before it closes with its in-state rival next week. Coach Paul Johnson says the focus is on getting better at what his team does this week. You can bet Robert Godhigh will have another terrific performance, following his 100-yard rushing/100-yard receiving day against Clemson. Godhigh is on pace to set the ACC mark for highest average yards per carry, currently at 9.5.

AA picks: Georgia Tech 55, Alabama A&M 3

HD's pick: Georgia Tech 56, Alabama A&M 10

IDAHO (1-9) at No. 2 FLORIDA STATE (10-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #IDAHOvsFSU. Once again, the question is how long will Jimbo Fisher keep his starters in, especially with a bigger game against rival Florida looming. This also seems as good a time as any to get backup quarterback Sean Maguire some reps. Idaho is one of the worst teams in the entire country, and this game should be out of hand by the end of the first quarter.

AA picks: Florida State 65, Idaho 0

HD's pick: FSU 72, Idaho 3

BOSTON COLLEGE (6-4, 3-3) at MARYLAND (6-4, 2-4), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. #BCvsMD. This may have been the toughest game to pick this week. Maryland is coming off an impressive win at Virginia Tech, while Andre Williams has put together two straight games of incredible performances. So which direction will this game go? It is hard to pick against the Eagles given what Williams and the offensive line have done this season. Simply put, they have worn the opposition down. Maryland has had injuries to contend with on defense, so I think BC will end up wearing the Terps down in the end.

AA picks: BC 24, Maryland 21

HD's pick: Maryland 21, Boston College 17: This game could go either way, but with it being the final home game in Byrd Stadium, it was hard to pick against the Terps. More importantly, Maryland has fared well this year in stopping the run, and is ranked No. 30 in the country in rushing defense, holding opponents to 139.8 yards per game. Boston College has made its living this fall with its running game, and Williams is certainly no secret. The Terps will be looking to slow down the ACC’s all-time single-season rushing leader, and they’ve also got the advantage in quarterback with C.J. Brown.
Brandon Mitchell stayed at home Saturday night. He spent his second bye weekend of the season watching Florida State's primetime showcase at Clemson. He had recorded the game, too, so he watched it again later. He noticed the speed of the Seminoles' defense, realized how tight the timing must be with his receivers and looked for hints, any hints, the unit was giving off that he could potentially exploit the next time he took the field.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mitchell
James Guillory/USA TODAY SportsNC State signal-caller Brandon Mitchell, who has missed the last five games with injury, has completed all three of his passes this season.
Welcome back, Brandon.

NC State gets a familiar face under center this Saturday when it heads to Doak Campbell Stadium, as Mitchell will return after a five-game absence caused by a broken bone in his left foot. Recreating familiar scenes against Florida State may be a whole 'nother matter in light of the Seminoles' national statement against the Tigers this past weekend.

"We've got to go down there and play clean and play hard and take a shot at them and keep taking shots at them and hope that we can get a few takeaways and good field position and play well on special teams," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said during his weekly press conference. "If they don't play well, that'd be great. But I'm anticipating a great Florida State team. That's what we've seen from every game that we've got on tape, is them dominating people. We know we've got to play well.

"The good things is our players have played against them and played well against them, so we know if we do things right we have a chance of winning this football game."

The narrative was similar going into last season's contest in Raleigh, N.C., before then-No. 3 Florida State stumbled in the second half, blowing a 16-0 lead and falling 17-16 to see national title hopes go up in flames with half of a season left to play. The Wolfpack have beaten the last four ranked Seminoles teams they have faced, though only the first of those games, in 2005, was in Tallahassee, Fla.

"I think from last year we learned that if we play to our potential we can play up there with the top teams in the country," offensive lineman Joe Thuney said. "We remember it and I'm sure they do, too. But it is a new year this year and we've just got to focus on taking this game and just giving it our all."

NC State finished just 3-3 after topping Florida State last season, leading to coach Tom O'Brien's firing.

After a 3-1 start this season that included a noble effort against Clemson, the Wolfpack have dropped two in a row and find themselves in an 0-3 hole in ACC play, with the offense averaging just 12.3 points per league contest under quarterback Pete Thomas.

They know the challenge that awaits this weekend against a team ranked No. 2 in the initial BCS standings.

"They capitalize on every opportunity that they have," receiver Bryan Underwood said. "The first play of the game (Clemson) turned it over, the offense came on the field and a couple plays later they scored. They forced a bunch of three-and-outs, they were attacking the players and the quarterback and disrupting a lot of routes, made Tajh Boyd uncomfortable in the pocket. So what I learned from them is they played very, very fast like they always do. They're going to come out ready to go no matter if it's home or away."

Underwood was on the receiving end of the memorable fourth-and-goal play last season, catching a game-winning two-yard pass from Mike Glennon with 16 seconds left to clinch the upset.

The redshirt junior will have a new quarterback looking for him this time around with Mitchell making his return.

Mitchell was a perfect 3-for-3 for 93 yards and a touchdown and tallied 19 yards on five rushes before leaving his Wolfpack debut in the first quarter of a Week 1 win over Louisiana Tech. The redshirt senior and Arkansas transfer dressed for NC State's last contest against Syracuse but opted to let a bye week handle the final phase of his recovery.

"That's been the hardest part," Mitchell said of being so close to a return. "I could've played, but if I got out there I wouldn't have been myself, and me not being able to play to my highest ability wouldn't do any good for the team. I didn't want to go out there and put the team in jeopardy as far as the game or then also putting myself in jeopardy for the rest of the season."

What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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After a few weeks of mediocre games, the ACC gets down to business with a top-25 showdown in Tallahassee and a battle of Coastal Division contenders in Miami. Here are some of the top storylines as the ACC gets rolling in Week 6:

Battle of undefeated teams: At this point, Maryland and Florida State are both playing second fiddle to Clemson in the Atlantic Division, but the winner of Saturday's showdown in Tallahassee will firmly establish itself as the Tigers' top rival. FSU remains the heavy favorite, having never lost to Maryland in 11 previous games at Doak Campbell Stadium, but its defense was exposed last week against Boston College, and the Terps have plenty of offensive firepower. Still, the Seminoles are easily the most talented team Maryland has faced during its 4-0 start, and even coach Randy Edsall said it will take a stellar effort to overcome a long track record of struggles against FSU.

[+] EnlargeTerrel Hunt
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSyracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions since replacing Drew Allen as the starter.
Coastal Division showdown: In the span of four quarters against Virginia Tech's formidable defense, Georgia Tech went from potential favorite to divisional life support last week. The Yellow Jackets couldn't find an answer to the Hokies' defensive scheme, and they're now faced with a showdown against undefeated Miami in South Florida. A second conference loss -- both to teams ahead of them in the standings -- would likely spell doom for the Jackets' hopes of returning to the ACC championship game. Miami, meanwhile, needs to keep pace with the resurgent Hokies, and Georgia Tech promises a far bigger test than the Hurricanes have gotten in the past two weeks, when they beat Savannah State and USF by a combined 126-28.

The rich get richer: After eight months of rehab on his injured knee, Virginia Tech corner Antone Exum has finally been cleared to play, though a decision on whether he'll take the field this weekend isn't expected until after today's practice. That's not exactly good news for ACC offenses already at a loss for how to solve the Hokies' stingy defense. With Exum out of the lineup, freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller have been phenomenal, combining for six interceptions and 12 passes defended in five games. Exum, meanwhile, was a second-team All-ACC corner last season. With Exum's return imminent, Facyson is getting reps at receiver, but it'll be up to coordinator Bud Foster to deal with the rather pleasant of finding reps for everyone.

Under the Dome: Syracuse kicks off ACC play for the first time, but the welcoming committee isn't likely to be particularly accommodating. Clemson heads to the Carrier Dome fresh off a throttling of Wake Forest and figures to present the Orange with a far bigger challenge than they've faced during their two-game winning streak against Wagner and Tulane. Still, Syracuse is far more optimistic about the season now that new starting QB Terrel Hunt has the offense rolling, and the Orange are expecting a nearly packed house.

Heisman watch in the ACC: Tajh Boyd has been an early favorite since the season started, and he burnished his credentials nicely last week against Wake Forest, completing 17 of 24 passes for 311 yards and three TDs, while rushing for a fourth. The upstart in the race is Winston, who led another ferocious offensive outburst for Florida State by completing 17 of 27 passes for 330 yards and four TDs. Both QBs get another shot to add to their increasingly impressive totals this week as the crowded field vying for the Heisman jockeys for the spotlight.

QB injuries: In Pittsburgh, Tom Savage faced a battery of concussion tests after being knocked around against Virginia. At Miami, the Hurricanes host Georgia Tech with starting quarterback Stephen Morris still nursing an ankle injury that he aggravated against USF. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas is coming off his best game of the season, but he has been hampered with an abdominal injury for weeks. If any of those injuries prove more serious than initial reports, the always-fluid Coastal Division race could be in for another shakeup.

North Carolina's effort: After a stunning 55-31 loss to East Carolina last week, UNC tailback A.J. Blue publicly questioned whether his team had overlooked a supposedly subpar opponent. The same result isn't likely this week, as the Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tech hoping to salvage their season. A win could reinvigorate North Carolina's hopes in the division, but a loss would send the Heels to 1-4 with another tough game against Miami to follow. It's only Week 5, but North Carolina appears to already be in a must-win situation.

Virginia's slumbering offense: After a 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh, coach Mike London and QB David Watford both lamented Virginia's sluggish offensive performance. London promised changes on the O-line, Watford insisted on extra work with his receivers and the entirety of the unit really has nowhere to go but up this week against Ball State. Virginia ranks 13th in the ACC in scoring offense and passing offense, and its minus-4 turnover margin ranks 110th nationally. Meanwhile, Ball State QB Keith Wenning has thrown for more than 300 yards in every game so far, meaning the Cavaliers are likely going to need some offensive fireworks of their own to keep pace.

Return of Mitchell: If all goes according to plan, this week's game against Wake Forest will be NC State's last without starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who broke a bone in his foot in the opener. Pete Thomas has done a solid enough job in Mitchell's absence, but there's a clear gap in playmaking ability. Thomas' 80-yard TD throw to Bryan Underwood in last week's win was his first passing touchdown of the season (to go with five INTs), but the Wolfpack are 3-1 with him as the starter.

Boston College bounce-back: Now that the Defense Department has given Army the OK to travel for the game, it's safe for Boston College to start planning for a rebound performance after last week's loss to Florida State. In spite of the outcome from a week ago, BC should have plenty of confidence. The Eagles offense scored 34 points, its high in an ACC game since 2009, and ran the ball successfully against what was thought to be a stout FSU defense. A loss is still a loss, but the impressive offensive performance was yet another sign that BC has taken some big steps forward under first-year coach Steve Addazio.

ACC predictions: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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Andrea correctly picked the Virginia Tech upset over Georgia Tech, but neither she nor Heather called the East Carolina upset over North Carolina. For the week, Andrea went 7-1 to bring her season total to 41-5. Heather went 6-2 and is now two behind at 39-7 overall.

Let's see what Week 6 has in store.

No. 25 Maryland (4-0) at No. 8 Florida State (4-0, 2-0), noon, ESPN. Maryland has never won in Tallahassee. Florida State has now won eight straight conference games, the first time the Noles have accomplished that feat since the 2001-02 seasons. Those two stats alone give Florida State the edge. Still, most expect this to be a competitive game. All eyes are on dual-threat quarterbacks C.J. Brown and Jameis Winston, who rank 1-2 in the ACC in total offense and are a big reason why their teams are unbeaten. Maryland is vastly improved on defense -- ranking just ahead of Florida State. But the Terps have not played anybody as good as this FSU offense. You could say the same for the FSU D. Still, the Noles have faced better competition (3 FBS teams .500 or better; Maryland two winless FBS teams) and have more depth and speed.

AA says: Florida State 30, Maryland 21

HD says: Florida State 28, Maryland 27

Ball State (4-1) at Virginia (2-2, 0-1), noon, ESPN3. Virginia is on upset alert after its dreadful offensive performance against Pitt. Given the way Ball State scores, Virginia cannot win a shootout. It will have to rely on its stellar defense to slow down the prolific Cardinals and hope changes made to the offensive line and other positions on offense work. The good news for the Hoos is that Ball State has not been particularly adept at stopping the run, giving up about 200 yards a game. Of course, Pitt had been a sieve, too, and UVa only managed three points last week. AA says: Virginia 20, Ball State 17

HD says: Virginia is having trouble scoring on air right now, and Ball State is hot. Yes, UVa’s defense has been much-improved under coordinator Jon Tenuta, but it’s October and coach Mike London has just opened up some of his starting jobs on offense to competition. That's not a good sign. Meanwhile, Ball State is No. 10 in the country in passing offense, and averaging 40 points per game. Virginia’s defense will keep it in the game, but a costly turnover or two and the Hoos’ inability to convert on third downs will be the difference. Ball State 14, Virginia 13

North Carolina (1-3, 0-1) at Virginia Tech (4-1, 1-0), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Nobody has to remind Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer about what happened in this game a year ago, when the Tar Heels racked up 339 yards rushing and won 48-34. But much has changed since their last meeting. Giovani Bernard -- who had a career-high 262 yards rushing -- is gone, and the North Carolina run game has fallen off in dramatic fashion. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is vastly improved and ranks No. 4 in the nation in total defense. Given the way North Carolina has played on offense and the way Virginia Tech has played on defense this year, it is hard to give the Tar Heels much of a shot.

AA says: Virginia Tech 24, North Carolina 7

HD says: Virginia Tech 28, North Carolina 17

Army (2-3) at Boston College (2-2, 1-1), 1 p.m., ESPN3. After some uncertainty as a result of the government shutdown, BC announced Thursday morning this game would be played as scheduled. Coach Steve Addazio says preparation during the week has focused on slowing down the Army option. Army is averaging 325 yards on the ground this season, and BC has had a tough time slowing down the run. To make matters worse, the Eagles have lost starting defensive tackle Mehdi Abdesmad for the season with a torn left patellar tendon. This is going to be a ground 'n' pound type of game. If Josh Harris at Wake Forest can lead the Deacs to a win over Army, then Andre Williams can do the same for BC.

AA says: Boston College 28, Army 17

HD says: Boston College 28, Army 21

NC State (3-1, 0-1) at Wake Forest (2-3, 0-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. The home team has won every game going back to 2007, but that streak is going to come to an end Saturday. Here is why. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe conceded this week his offense still has not found its niche and the coaches are trying to figure out what works well. Never good to hear that nearly midway through the season. The Deacs have improved on defense, but their offense remains sub-par and Grobe acknowledged they need Tanner Price to play better. NC State, meanwhile, has gotten terrific production from Bryan Underwood lately and has seen Pete Thomas improve each week. Plus, its defense leads the ACC with 37 tackles for loss.

AA says: NC State 31, Wake Forest 17

HD says: NC State 28, Wake 17

No. 3 Clemson (4-0, 2-0) at Syracuse (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. We have heard a lot of Syracuse players speak confidently about their chances at pulling the upset this weekend. The Orange have, after all, pulled an upset or two over a ranked team at home the last several years. The plan will be the same as the one that flustered Teddy Bridgewater and Geno Smith -- put pressure on Tajh Boyd and hope that does enough to limit the skill players on the perimeter and keep the scoring down. But if the Tigers can handle the pressure, watch out. The Syracuse secondary has been a weak spot defensively this year. Terrel Hunt has played well in the last two games for Syracuse. But he has not seen anybody that compares to Vic Beasley or this Clemson defensive front yet. The Dome crowd will be loud, but ultimately Clemson will prevail in large part because it will win the matchups up front.

AA says: Clemson 30, Syracuse 20

HD says: Clemson 35, Syracuse 21

Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-1) at No. 14 Miami (4-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. Perhaps the most surprising stat headed into this game relates to the defenses -- both teams rank in the Top 10 in the nation in total D and scoring D. Consider where both were a year ago at this time, and that is a remarkable turnaround. Though Heather projects another shootout in this one, Andrea believes this is going to be a close, low-scoring game because of said defenses. The difference here is Miami is much better on offense, and has many more reliable playmakers. Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson will make enough plays on the Jackets' defense to get the Canes to 5-0.

AA says: Miami 24, Georgia Tech 20

HD says: Miami 41, Georgia Tech 31

ACC weekend rewind: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
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Here is one last look back at the weekend that was in the ACC:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLogan Thomas came through for Virginia Tech against Georgia Tech.
The good: Logan Thomas completed his first nine passes, his defense made its case as one of the nation's best and Virginia Tech pulled off the 17-10 upset Thursday night at Georgia Tech, potentially revitalizing a Hokies program that had been facing several questions following a 7-6 campaign and mostly underwhelming performances through its 3-1 start entering Atlanta. Thomas finished 19-of-25 for 221 yards and a touchdown, adding 58 yards and another score on the ground. Virginia Tech's defense held the vaunted triple-option offense of the Yellow Jackets to 10 points and 273 total yards -- on a short week, no less. The Coastal division race is very interesting, to say the least.

The bad: Paging North Carolina. What in the world happened to the Tar Heels? They dropped a 55-31 home contest Saturday to East Carolina to fall to 1-3, and their offense and defense might share equal blame. The offense for failing to score in the final 39-plus minutes last week at Georgia Tech, then not scoring a touchdown until late in the second quarter Saturday, while already facing a 21-3 hole. The defense for, well, giving up 55 points and 603 total yards to the Pirates. Games on deck at Virginia Tech and then against Miami (Fla.) won't be any easier on the offense, but UNC needs answers fast.

The ugly: Miami's 49-21 win at USF was rather uneventful in terms of competitiveness, but Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris added some spice to the postgame talk after he accused the Bulls of being a "dirty team." Morris had thrown 222 yards and two scores before leaving in the second quarter after reinjuring his ankle, which he hurt the week before against Savannah State. Said Morris, according to the Palm Beach Post: "South Florida's a dirty team. When you're down and tackled and everyone's on top, they're going to try to go for your ankles. We were up three, four touchdowns. Ain't no point for me to mess with these guys who are going to play dirty. It is what it is. I wanted to score 70 points on them. They disrespected us, so I had no respect for them. At that point, I felt like we should just keep pushing it, keep killing them."

The slugfest: OK, maybe we're being generous here, but credit Pittsburgh for being able to outlast Virginia 14-3 one week after running away from Duke in a 58-55 win. The Panthers outgained the Cavaliers 199-188. They rushed for just eight yards. They had three turnovers and forced two themselves. The teams combined for 17 punts. Tom Savage was sacked nine times and left with concussion-like symptoms late in the fourth quarter. But Pitt has won three in a row after a rough opener against Florida State, and that's all that matters.

The history: Tajh Boyd eclipsed the 100-touchdown mark for his career in Clemson's 56-7 win Saturday over Wake Forest, making him the second quarterback in ACC history to accomplish the feat for his career, joining Philip Rivers. Boyd completed 17 of 24 passes for 311 yards with three touchdowns and no picks, and he added 69 rushing yards and another touchdown. He bounced back from a so-so outing at NC State a week earlier and reignited the Heisman talk surrounding him. He took offensive coordinator Chad Morris' advice to "have fun" and helped the Tigers make easy work of the Demon Deacons.

The big quarter: NC State scored four touchdowns in the second frame of its 48-14 win over Central Michigan, recovering from the loss to Clemson and improving to 3-1. Pete Thomas threw his first touchdown pass of the season, an 80-yard strike to Bryan Underwood late in the fourth quarter, as the Wolfpack rolled. The quarterback finished 14-of-20 for 244 yards with one touchdown and one pick, plus another rushing score. He connected all day with Underwood, who caught five passes for 148 yards and added 42 rushing yards.

The rebound: It was only against Troy, but Brandon Connette completed 20 of 28 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and just one pick in Duke's 38-31 win over the Trojans, while adding 55 rushing yards and two more scores on the ground. The redshirt junior's numbers were similar last week against Pitt, but his four picks against the Panthers proved to be costly. Saturday was far from pretty, but the Blue Devils got a win they simply had to have it they want to go bowling for a second straight season. Their 514 yards of offense helped them get to 3-2.

The quote: In losing a tightly contested, 48-34 shootout to Florida State, Boston College exceeded everyone's expectations. Everyone's but their own. Said coach Steve Addazio, according to ESPN Boston's Jack McCluskey: “Don’t let people tell you, ‘Oh boy, you played Florida State nose up.’ Who cares? We didn’t come out there to play them nose up. I heard that crap early in the media. People asking me about, ‘What are you gonna do to keep it close?’ I had all I could do not to explode. What do you think, you coach or play to keep it close? What are you talking about here? You play to win. We played that game physically enough to win it. We let up too many big plays, and that cost us a football game. And it didn’t have to happen. I don’t care who the heck we played.”

ACC helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
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The two ACC quarterbacks contending for the Heisman turned in outstanding performances in Week 5, while one of the league's most maligned quarterbacks joined them. Here are this week's helmet stickers.

Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas: Perhaps no player in the ACC has faced more criticism in the first month of the season, but in spite of his struggles, Thomas now has his Hokies in position to win the Coastal thanks to an upset of Georgia Tech in which he was nearly flawless. Thomas completed 19-of-25 passes (just his second career game completing better than 70 percent of his throws) for 221 yards and a TD. He also rushed 16 times for 58 yards and another touchdown. Plenty of credit again goes to the Virginia Tech D, which sealed the game with a late interception, but it was Thomas' sterling performance that provides hope the Hokies still have a shot at a BCS game.

Pitt DT Aaron Donald: One week after being gashed for 55 points by Duke, the Pitt defense stepped up and shut down Virginia. The Cavaliers mustered just three points and 188 yards of offense, with Donald leading the charge in the middle of the line. Donald finished the game with two sacks, two QB hurries, three tackles and a forced fumble. Virginia managed just 2 yards per rush.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston: The defense struggled, the special teams were bad, but FSU's dynamic freshman quarterback staved off Boston College's upset bid almost single-handedly. Winston completed 17-of-27 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns, including a 55-yard Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half to Kenny Shaw. Winston was dazzling, leading FSU back from a 17-3 deficit with three completions of 40-plus yards. He also paced FSU's rushing game, carrying 14 times for 67 yards.

NC State WR Bryan Underwood: The Wolfpack kept things close with Clemson last week but came up just short. They've found a good bit more success outside the conference, including Saturday's 48-14 thrashing of Central Michigan when Underwood led the way with 190 yards of offense and a touchdown. Underwood caught five passes for a career-high 148 yards. Underwood hauled in an 80-yard touchdown pass from Pete Thomas, the first of the season for the NC State quarterback.

Clemson QB Tajh Boyd: After a somewhat shaky outing against NC State a week ago, Boyd bounced back into Heisman form against woefully overmatched Wake Forest. The senior QB completed 17-of-24 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns. He also served as Clemson's leading rusher, carrying the ball 17 times for 69 yards and a score. Boyd has accounted for at least three touchdowns in each of his three starts against FBS opponents (and 14 of his last 15 dating to last season).

ACC keeps expecting the unexpected

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
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In the days leading up to Virginia Tech's Thursday night showdown with Georgia Tech, Logan Thomas could hardly throw. An abdominal injury limited him in practice, which figured to be bad news for the Hokies, given how poorly Thomas and the offense had played when healthy.

So, of course, the senior quarterback went to Atlanta, played his best game of the season, and the much-maligned Virginia Tech offense helped lead an upset over the Yellow Jackets.

It was a harbinger for the weekend to come in the ACC. Just when it seemed we had things pegged, the expectations got turned upside down again.

How else to explain what happened in Pittsburgh, where the Panthers' defense completely shut down Virginia just seven days after coughing up 532 yards and 55 points to Duke? Certainly Virginia's offense didn't present the same test, but the Cavaliers mustered just 188 yards of offense in the game. Of course, the most surprising thing might have been that high-flying Pitt managed only 11 more.

Who could have possibly predicted Boston College's near upset of Florida State? It wasn't so much that the Eagles came out quickly against an unprepared Seminoles team. They did, of course, jumping out to a 17-3 lead. What was perhaps more surprising, however, was that BC kept coming back even after Jameis Winston and Florida State delivered what seemed like one final dagger after another. BC fought to the end, riding a power running game to 34 points against the bigger, faster Seminoles. Florida State knew BC's game plan was to run the ball, and yet Andre Williams still racked up 149 yards on the ground -- the most by a runner against FSU since 2010.

And what happened to North Carolina? Sure, the Tar Heels hadn't opened the season with many fireworks, but this was a team that tied for the Atlantic Division title a year ago, looked at least reasonably capable against South Carolina in its opener and was up early on Georgia Tech a week ago before faltering late. So did the Heels take out their frustrations against East Carolina? Not even close. UNC allowed 603 yards and 55 points, of course.

[+] EnlargePete Thomas
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIAfter a rough start to the season, Pete Thomas stepped up with his best game in a win against Central Michigan.
Or how about NC State's Pete Thomas? The backup QB forced into the starting role in Week 1 had looked dreadful during his first three games, tossing four interceptions without a TD. He looked much improved against Central Michigan on Saturday, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Underwood, helping NC State to nearly 500 yards of total offense.

Then there was Logan Thomas, who had completed 70 percent of his passes in a game just once in his career, but managed to find receivers on 19 of his 25 attempts against Georgia Tech, racking up 279 yards of offense and two touchdowns in the win.

If the slate didn't provide myriad upsets, it certainly provided plenty of surprises in just how those outcomes came to be.

And yet, not every game was a shocker. Clemson scored an easy win on Wake Forest, and Miami ran up the score against USF. Some outcomes were so secure, there was no wiggle room for surprises.

But so much of what seemed clear a week ago -- that Georgia Tech was in the driver's seat in the Coastal, that Florida State was gearing up for its showdown with Clemson, that the Hokies couldn't move the football and Pitt couldn't stop it -- those assumptions all seem a bit silly now.

Instead, the Seminoles must go back to work and try to figure out how their defense has been gashed by both of the ACC opponents it has faced this year. With Maryland and Clemson up next on the slate, such shortcomings won't be so easily overcome by Winston's heroics.

Georgia Tech's plans for a second straight trip to the ACC title game may be dashed already, but the Jackets can help themselves stay alive with a win over Miami next week. They’re going to need some outside help, though, as they’ll lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with Virginia Tech, should it come to that.

Clemson and Miami are rolling, Pitt and NC State appear resilient, North Carolina and Wake are reeling. And Duke? Well, there's always hope the Blue Devils' D can rebound as well as Virginia Tech's offense.

"That locker room feels real good about ourselves," Hokies linebacker Jack Tyler said after their big win. "But like [defensive coordinator Bud] Foster says, when you start feeling good about yourself, that’s when you get knocked off."

That's a warning worth remembering around the ACC after this week.

After all, for all we thought we learned, the one overriding revelation could be that those lessons may last only until the games of Week 6 kick off and the whole set of assumptions is flipped upside down once again.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
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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:

[+] EnlargeVad Lee
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia 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.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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It was hardly the most exciting slate of games in Week 4, but the ACC provided plenty of big-time performances. Virginia had two tailbacks -- Kevin Parks and walk-on Daniel Hamm -- combine for 271 yards and four TDs. Nikita Whitlock tallied 14 tackles, including three for a loss, in Wake Forest's win over Army. Terrel Hunt continued to impress, accounting for five touchdowns in his first career start for Syracuse. And yet, none of them quite made the cut for helmet stickers this week.

Clemson DE Vic Beasley: The history of NC State pulling the upset over ranked teams was well documented in the lead-up to the game, and the Wolfpack might have done it again if it hadn't been for Beasley's dominant work on defense. The Clemson defensive end racked up five tackles, three sacks, broke up two passes and -- three plays after NC State had a potential go-ahead score called back -- forced a fumble from QB Pete Thomas that turned the tide of the game. Beasley now has five sacks on the season -- just three shy of his 2012 total.

Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage: Handing out just one helmet sticker to a member of the Pitt offense after Saturday's 58-55 win is a tough task, but it's impossible to argue with Savage's final numbers. The senior QB completed 22-of-33 passes for 424 yards and six touchdowns, tying an ACC record. The six-TD performance hadn't been done by an ACC quarterback since 1999. He had plenty of help though. Tailback James Conner ran for 173 yards, receiver Devin Street caught six passes for 166 and freshman sensation Tyler Boyd had eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns.

Maryland's defense: Defensive back A.J. Hendy was the star, recovering two fumbles and returning an interception for a touchdown in the 37-0 win, but there's plenty of credit to go around on the Terps' D. Maryland pitched a shutout against West Virginia -- the first time the Mountaineers had been held scoreless since 2001 -- while creating six turnovers. West Virginia had just 175 yards of offense, including a mere 62 from the passing game. Seven different Terrapins recorded a tackle in the backfield, three different players forced fumbles, and Maryland assured it will be undefeated for its Oct. 5 showdown with Florida State.

Georgia Tech running backs: North Carolina jumped out to a 13-0 lead early, but the Georgia Tech offense roared back with 324 rushing yards, 199 of which were delivered by Robert Godhigh and David Sims. Godhigh racked up a career-best 100 yards on just nine carries -- five of which went for first downs. Sims, meanwhile, tacked on 99 yards and two scores. The senior B-back scored on a 1-yard run for the Yellow Jackets' first touchdown, then rumbled in from 6 yards out to put the finishing touches on a 28-20 come-from-behind win that established Georgia Tech as a top contender in the Coastal Division.

Duke WR Jamison Crowder: Perhaps it's breaking an unwritten rule by giving a helmet sticker to a player whose team lost, but it's hard to fault Crowder for the outcome. The junior did all he could to keep Duke in the game, recording 279 all-purpose yards and scoring three touchdowns -- one rushing, one receiving and one on a punt return. He became the first Duke player to record a rushing, receiving and special-teams TD in a single game since 1999.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As the final whistle sounded in Clemson’s sluggish 26-14 win over NC State on Thursday night, the entire officiating crew sprinted off the field and into a waiting maroon minivan, whisked away into the dark night.

Know who else was happy to escape Raleigh? Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who opened his postgame news conference by saying, “Glad to get that one over. We can’t load the buses up soon enough.”

No. 3 Clemson (3-0) kept its national championship hopes intact thanks to one huge momentum shift involving said referees. Clinging to a 13-7 lead midway through the third quarter, Clemson watched as NC State receiver Bryan Underwood blazed 83 yards down the sideline like track superstar Usain Bolt, crossing into the end zone as the Carter-Finley Stadium crowd erupted.

One official signaled touchdown in the end zone.

Except another official whistled the play dead, believing Underwood had stepped out of bounds. Because of that whistle, the play was not reviewable. Underwood dashed down that sideline with such speed, it was hard to tell whether he had, indeed, stepped out of bounds in real time. Screen grabs zoomed into Underwood’s cleats showed he might have been out.

NC State instead got the ball at the Clemson 47. Three plays later, Vic Beasley sacked Pete Thomas and forced a fumble that Spencer Shuey recovered. Five plays after that, Tajh Boyd threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant, setting the Tigers on their way to the win.

Of course, each coach had a different view of the Underwood play.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Liz Condo/USA TODAY SportsIt might not have been pretty, but Tajh Boyd and Clemson escaped with a win over NC State.
“When you’re trying to have a great year, there's always a few breaks,” Swinney said. “The guy stepped out of bounds. That's a tough break for them and a good break for us.”

“That was right in front of me,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “He wasn't out of bounds. Unfortunately, they blew it dead, so we couldn't review it. It cost us some points, but you have to move on from that.”

NC State could not move on. The play deflated the energy in the crowd, and the Wolfpack on the field, too. To that point, the game was right there for them to take, giving some flashbacks to what they did to Florida State last season and Clemson in 2011.

Much like the game against the Tigers in 2011, the NC State defensive front befuddled Boyd for the first half. NC State led 7-6 in the second quarter before Clemson scored just before halftime to go up 13-7. Still, the normally high-powered Tigers offense chugged into halftime looking like it needed an entire overhaul.

The third quarter did not begin much better for Clemson, with two three-and-outs to start. But then came the Underwood play. Then, the Beasley sack and strip. Swinney called it “the spark that got us going.”

“The defensive players depend on me to make big plays,” Beasley said. “[They say], ‘Vic, come on, you gotta get there.’”

The response from Beasley?

“Alright guys, I got you,” Beasley said. “I know what the guys are expecting from me.”

In the same way, the offense relies on Boyd to get the offense going. He did not play his best first half. But when he saw what Beasley did, he knew he had to lead his team down the field for a score.

“A field goal wasn't enough in that situation,” Boyd said. “I love field goals, but we want to score touchdowns when we step out on that field. That's just our job.”

Boyd hit Bryant for another touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give the Tigers a 26-7 lead that put the game permanently out of reach.

Shortly after, a staffer came to where ACC coordinator of officiating Doug Rhoads had been sitting in the press box. Rhoads had left his seat after the Underwood play and went down to the field. The staffer packed up Rhoads’ belongings and quietly walked away.

Clemson walked away, too, this time unscathed.

“I think a lot of people were looking for us to have a letdown game or 'Clemsoning' type of game, but I'm confident in the type of team we have. I'm confident in the type of players we have,” Boyd said. “The coaching staff does a great job. Again, it wasn't perfect by any means. It wasn't pretty by any means, but you gotta love going on the road and getting a win.”


NC State has defeated one ranked team every year since 2005. No. 3 Clemson made sure the Tigers weren’t this year’s victim of the Raleigh curse. Here’s a quick look back at Clemson’s win over NC State:

It was over when: Bryan Underwood’s would-be 83-yard touchdown run was called back in the third quarter. Officials ruled he stepped out of bounds at the 47-yard line, quarterback Pete Thomas was sacked and fumbled three plays later, and Clemson recovered it and scored on the following possession. In a tight game, it was that turn of events that shifted the momentum and gave the Tigers a 20-7 lead NC State could never recover from.

Game ball goes to: Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley. He's the one who sacked Thomas on third-and-10 for a loss of 6 yards in the third quarter. He finished with three sacks, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and five total tackles.

Stat of the game: NC State was just 3-of-16 on third downs. The Pack offense got some big plays and averaged almost 6 yards per play, but they hurt themselves with nine penalties and a turnover. The last third-down conversion for the Pack? A touchdown by Thomas with 3:50 left in the game.

What Clemson learned: It’s not invincible. If the No. 3-ranked Tigers want to stay undefeated and in the hunt for the national title -- aka beat Florida State -- they have to play better offensively. Clemson was pushed around up front by the Wolfpack’s defensive line, and quarterback Tajh Boyd wasn’t always accurate in his throws. Let's not forget the defense, which allowed a 23-play drive in the fourth quarter.

What NC State learned: It can hang with the big boys. First-year coach Dave Doeren made a statement that he has no intentions of being an afterthought in the Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack was well-prepared, well-coached and put in position to succeed. Expect more of it under Doeren, especially as he brings in his own recruits. NC State's biggest problem wasn't Clemson -- it was itself, with nine penalties and a turnover.

What it means: The ACC still has a national title contender. For years, the ACC has been its own worst enemy, as Florida State and Clemson have been notorious for losing games they shouldn’t (See: vs. NC State 2012, 2011, 2010). This was the classic trap game for Clemson, but the Tigers avoided the upset, didn't "pull a Clemson" and, in the process, protected the ACC’s improved image -- and its hopes of producing an undefeated team.

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