Is Clemson poised for another late-season run? Can Miami survive its injuries? Is Wake Forest the best 3-4 team in the country? Will Florida State claim a BCS spot? Our ACC notebook addresses those questions, along with looks at Georgia Tech's offense, NC State's turnover problem and more.
Don't look now, but here come the Tigers, who are on a modest two-game winning streak heading into Saturday's home game against North Carolina State. They'll need three wins in their final four games to qualify for a bowl, and even then Clemson (3-4, 2-3 ACC) needs some help in landing an invitation to the ACC's No. 5 bowl (the Humanitarian).
The fact that the ACC only has four teams that look like a sure-thing when it comes to the postseason (Miami, Florida State, Virginia and Virginia Tech) helps. Next on the list would be the Wolfpack (4-3, 3-2 ACC). Clemson's timing, at least, is good. NC State is coming off a disappointing loss to Miami in a game the 'Pack had been looking forward to since league schedules were announced last summer.
Consider Saturday's game a showdown of sorts for the league's fifth bowl slot. The Tigers need to catch NC State flat, then win two of their final three (at Miami, at Duke, South Carolina), which is far from certain, to qualify.
When Reggie Herring was Clemson's defensive coordinator in 2001, he was derided on radio call-in shows as the source of the Tigers' problems for a team that gave up 35.5 points a game in four ACC losses. Though Tommy Bowden stood by his man, Herring bolted for the NFL, where he spent two seasons as linebackers coach for the Houston Texans. He accepted Chuck Amato's invitation to be the Wolfpack's defensive coordinator this season, and had his unit rated No. 1 nationally in total defense before a 45-31 loss to Miami last weekend.
"He did a very good job for me and I told him he could have stayed here as long as I was here,'' Bowden said. "He was a really good football coach when he left and then he went and spent two years in the pros and that made him even a better coach."
Though NC State has slipped to eighth in the ACC in points allowed (19.6), the 'Pack remains No. 1 against the pass, allowing 121.4 a game. That's where Saturday's game should be decided.
Clemson junior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst leads the ACC in interceptions (13) and has the second-lowest completion percentage among league starters. He did, however, end a streak of 11 consecutive games with an interception by not throwing one in last week's win over Maryland.
When Wake Forest took a 42-0 halftime lead on Duke a year ago, the fate of Blue Devils coach Carl Franks was sealed. He was fired the next morning, clearing the way for current coach Ted Roof to take over, initially on an interim basis. So Roof should have mixed feelings about that game, right?
"It stirs emotions in my gut,'' he said, declining to specify which ones.
Either way, Duke's progress compared to that loss a year ago can be measured almost entirely in emotion. The Blue Devils continue to play with it, despite their record (1-6, 0-4 ACC). That won't be enough to avenge last year's humiliation, and it won't make for a much brighter future at Duke unless Roof can find some of the recruiting success Jim Grobe has at Wake Forest.
Duke is guaranteed of its fifth consecutive losing season and 14th in the past 15 years. The Demon Deacons could win a fifth-consecutive game in the series against Duke for the first time.
Tailback Cedric Dargans returned from an injury to rush for 108 yards against Virginia last week and provides a source of optimism for the Blue Devils, whose best chance for a league victory this season probably will come in the season finale, at home against North Carolina.
"He's back in game shape, as opposed to just trying to bring him back from an injury," Roof said of Dargans. "The thing about him that jumps out at you is experience. There's no substitute for experience. He understands where things can happen.''
The Seminoles' focus is on winning the final four games, starting Saturday at Maryland, to finish among the top six in the BCS standings and guarantee themselves an at-large bid to a BCS bowl. Anything beyond that is out of Florida State's control. Miami will have to lose twice or fall into a three-way tie in the ACC before the Seminoles would have a shot at winning the league title for a 12th time in 13 seasons.
"If we can win the rest of our games, no matter what happens with Miami, that's all I can ask,'' Coach Bobby Bowden said. "I don't know that we will, but whatever happens with them, I don't have any judgment over that and I won't worry about it.''
Lorenzo Booker was one of the most highly acclaimed running backs to come out of California in years when he signed with the Seminoles in the spring of 2002. He has demonstrated his ability this season as the backup to starter Leon Washington, rushing for 123 yards against Virginia and, after being held to 8 yards on eight carries last week at Wake Forest, popping a 46-yard run on third-and-10 to set up a game-winning field goal with 63 seconds to play.
This week, Booker gets a chance to become the featured back. Washington is out with a separated shoulder and most likely won't return until Nov. 11 at NC State.
"This is the first time I have faced that responsibility all alone. Usually, it's Leon and I,'' Booker said. "It's an opportunity to prove to the team, "Hey, I can do this. I can come through when you need me to.''
The Seminoles already are the best defense in the ACC and they should get even better with the return of starting defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley and Eric Moore from sprained ankles. If FSU's health holds up on defense, the Seminoles have a realistic chance to make it through an 11-game schedule allowing only one rushing touchdown (the one in overtime at Miami in the season-opener).
Georgia Tech's struggles on offense (only Duke has scored fewer points among ACC teams) make it unrealistic to believe the Yellow Jackets can maintain their current pace (4-2, 3-2 ACC) against a schedule that still includes NC State, Virginia and Georgia after Thursday night's home game against Virginia Tech.
If not for the play of tailback P.J. Daniels, who leads the ACC in rushing at 105.8 yards a game, Tech would have no realistic bowl expectations. Instead, the most improved defense in the conference (since September), and Daniels, makes for an all-important game against the Hokies as far as post-season plans are concerned. Tech has a chance because the Hokies haven't exactly been lights-out offensively, either.
"I think our guys have a great deal of confidence right now," Gailey said of his defense. "We're not to the point where we have any kind of cockiness about us, but I think we have a lot of confidence. ... I think our guys understand if we do our job and everybody plays to their ability and does what they are supposed to do, we have a chance to be a very good defense.''
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is among the best three at his job in the league (along with Florida State's Mickey Andrews and Virginia Tech's Bud Foster). Here's an example of why: Tenuta moved backup defensive back Chris Reis to linebacker before the season because of a lack of players at that position. Reis now leads the ACC in sacks (averaging 1.2 a game) and is among the top 15 in the league in tackles (7.5 a game).
History lesson: Tech and Tech have met once previously. In 1990, they combined for more than 700 yards of total offense in Atlanta, but the game was scoreless until the fourth quarter. The Yellow Jackets won, 6-3, on a 38-yard field goal by Scott Sisson with eight seconds remaining. His kick, along with a 33-yarder he made with just more than five minutes to play, preserved an undefeated season that ended with the Yellow Jackets sharing the national title with Colorado. The teams were supposed to play again to open the 2000 season, but heavy lightning posed a safety threat and the game was canceled.
After quarterback Reggie Ball won Rookie of the Year honors in the ACC a year ago, expect current Tech freshman receiver Calvin Johnson to do the same this year. He's second in the league in receiving yardage (65.8 a game) and sixth in touchdowns scored with five.
After sticking with Joel Statham at quarterback against Clemson instead of going to freshman Jordan Steffy, Coach Ralph Friedgen remained undeterred by the fact the Terrapins scored only once in a 10-7 loss. Or by the fact that the score came on a blocked punt.
"I thought Joel played with rhythm and he played with confidence,'' Friedgen said.
Statham threw two interceptions, but completed 14 of 31 passes despite several drops by his receivers. He'll get his toughest assignment yet on Saturday against a Florida State defense playing better at the moment than any other in the ACC. Not only are the Seminoles peaking defensively, but Statham also will be without his speediest wide receiver after Derrick Fenner sprained his ankle last week.
Friedgen took the time earlier this week to remind his players of recent improbable moments in sports, such as Boston's rally from a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS and Mississippi State's victory over Florida. If the Terps were to upset the fifth-ranked Seminoles, a team they've never defeated, it would rank as the biggest surprise in Maryland's football history.
Good thing for Maryland that linebacker D'Qwell Jackson played quarterback during his senior year at Seminole High in Largo, Fla. If not, the Seminoles might have put more emphasis on recruiting him, possibly preventing him from slipping away. As it was, the 'Noles didn't know what to make of Jackson. Despite being a standout linebacker at Seminole, in addition to his quarterbacking, FSU was having great success at that position and didn't see him as a must-have defensive player.
Last week, he had 18 tackles at Clemson. Last year, he picked off a Chris Rix pass on Florida State's first offensive play against the Terrapins, returning it 58 yards for a touchdown, running over Rix on the way to the end zone.
No team has been as resilient to changing personnel as Miami in recent years, but even the Hurricanes would have trouble overcoming additional losses to key players. Senior defensive tackle Santonio Thomas and junior offensive guard Tyler McMeans initially were feared to be out for the season after suffering knee injuries in last week's victory at NC State. Though closer inspection showed neither needs surgery, there is no timetable on when they'll be back in the lineup.
Combined with the loss of offensive tackle Eric Winston to a season-ending knee injury, the loss of another offensive lineman could be a major disruption, and at a time when quarterback Brock Berlin has begun to play at a high level (11 TD passes, 2 interceptions over the last three games).
"We are a little deeper on the offensive line than we have been in the past, which helps,'' Coach Larry Coker said.
In addition, Berlin's backup, Kyle Weaver, is out of commission with a severely sprained left ankle and starting center Joel Rodriguez is playing in spite of a knee sprain. The Hurricanes won't get through their remaining five ACC games without a struggle, and if the injuries continue to mount, expect the regular season to end with UM in a three-way tie for the league lead with Florida State and either Virginia or Virginia Tech.
It seemed so obvious: after a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (only 100 of those yards will be credited in the record book), sophomore Devin Hester has earned more opportunities to get the ball in his hands (he also has three punt returns for scores this season). He said this week that UM coaches have designed "a couple of plays'' to give him additional chances to make things happen. Last week, he actually asked permission to bring a kickoff out of the end zone against NC State after scouting the Wolfpack and recognizing that NC State's kicker almost always boots the ball too deep to return.
Berlin's resilience is the best thing that could have happened for the Hurricanes, even before his backup went down last week in practice. "The thing that amazes me is that he has never flinched,'' Coker said. "There has certainly been a lot of criticism, as you are going to have as a quarterback, but he has never doubted himself.''
Miami will get no tears from the Tar Heels over its injury problems. No team in the ACC is as beat up as North Carolina, which could be without its top two tailbacks -- Ronnie McGill and Jacque Lewis -- this weekend against the Hurricanes. Quarterback Darian Durant will play in spite of a sprained elbow suffered at Utah on Oct. 16. And the Tar Heels are doing it against a schedule rated the toughest in the country by the Sagarin computer.
The question is what role those factors will play in John Bunting's evaluation at season's end if the Tar Heels are 4-7, which would leave them 5-19 in the ACC over the past three seasons. With 10 senior starters departing, including record-setting quarterback Darian Durant, Bunting's own return for a fifth season in Chapel Hill is far from guaranteed. The biggest strike against Bunting, who spent eight seasons as a defensive assistant with three NFL teams, is a Carolina defense that is last among ACC teams in all five major statistical categories (yards allowed, passing yards, rushing yards, scoring and pass defense efficiency).
North Carolina State
Last week's loss to Miami is another example of how difficult it has been for Coach Chuck Amato to get his team over a rut in the ACC, where the Wolfpack hasn't finished better than fourth since he arrived in 2000. If NC State can't shake the loss in time to win at Clemson on Saturday, even fifth place in the final ACC standings might be unattainable. In fact, the 'Pack may be scrapping to stay in bowl contention when they travel to Death Valley. A loss would drop Amato's team to 4-4 overall with games remaining against Georgia Tech, Florida State and East Carolina. A win against Clemson would set the 'Pack up for a possible 7-4 finish.
If there's one source of blame for NC State's struggles, look at turnovers. The 'Pack is 110th among Division I teams in turnover ratio at minus-10 (minus-1.43 a game), negating much of the improvement on defense, where NC State is No. 2 in fewest yards allowed.
As many as three of five starters on the offensive line will be missing on Saturday at Clemson. "It's at a very critical stage right now,'' Amato said. "That's the one place you can least afford to have a lot of injuries. I know everybody goes through it, but we've really, really gone through it in a tough way this year.''
Al Groh held true to his vow after the loss at Florida State to make his starters compete for their jobs every week in practice, promoting second-teamers Alvin Pearman (tailback) and Rich Bedesem (inside linebacker) over Wali Lundy and Kai Parham, who are candidates for All-ACC honors. Pearman produced a 223-yard rushing performance (one yard shy of the school record). Bedesem, at least, may have awakened Parham, who finished with more tackles (4-3) than his replacement.
Groh got his wish: With a week off, the Cavaliers will have made it to Nov. 1 still in the hunt in the ACC. Amazingly, the Cavs also got this far without giving a clear indication how good they are (or aren't). Virginia has faced only one ranked opponent, losing by 33 points at Florida State.
The Hokies are in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and total defense and they're about to get a little better with the return of linebacker Xavier Adibi, who is expected to return in a limited role for Thursday night's game against Georgia Tech. Adibi tore a biceps muscle in the season opener in August against Southern California and originally was told he would be out for the season.
His return strengthens a Tech defense that already has lifted the Hokies beyond expectations this season. "His conditioning and getting back into the flow of things will be issues,'' Coach Frank Beamer said. "Xavier is a linebacker who does things naturally, so we do expect him to play.''
Beating the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta is a crucial step for the Hokies' post-season hopes. They face North Carolina on Nov. 6 and a spiraling Maryland team on Thursday, Nov. 18. Then comes season-ending games against Virginia and Miami over an eight-day period that could catapult Virginia Tech into a share of the ACC title and a BCS bowl. "How we perform during this stretch is really going to name our season,'' Beamer said.
Try not to snicker at the phrase: best 3-4 team in America. The Demon Deacons probably are better even than that, and may get a chance to prove it in a bowl game if they continue to play with the same level of emotion as in last weekend's three-point loss to fifth-ranked Florida State.
Wake Forest plays Duke on Saturday, then has North Carolina and Maryland sandwiched around a trip to Miami on Nov. 20. Three wins in those four games would put the Deacs in position for a bid, though not a great one, considering NC State, Georgia Tech and possibly Clemson also could be hovering around the 6-5 mark in a league with only five bowl tie-ins this season.
"We've played hard in seven games now and need to give that same effort in the next four,'' said Coach Jim Grobe, whose four losses in the ACC this season include two in overtime (to N.C. State and Clemson) and two by a combined total of 10 points to Virginia Tech and Florida State. Both those games were decided in the final minutes.
"We have smart kids playing for us and we know we've played really good people,'' Grobe said. "I think we're a good football team, but because of the schedule and not taking care of business on our own part, we haven't won as many as we've wanted to.''
Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.