The top two teams in the ACC were on the verge of losing to unranked opponents on Saturday. Entering the fourth quarter, Clemson was tied with Boston College—a team that had been outscored by a combined 53 points over the previous two weeks, and Florida State was trailing a North Carolina State team that hadn’t defeated a ranked opponent in its last 10 tries.
Clemson rallied to rattle off four touchdowns in the final period, all but erasing the Tigers’ early blunders. FSU wasn’t as fortunate. Its red zone deficiencies continued, and, as a result, the Seminoles only managed two field goals and a safety before the game’s end, falling short of the Wolfpack.
When it comes to head-to-head play in this conference, no team is safe.
Saturday served as a reminder that the ACC is one of, if not, the best conference in all of college football—not only because of its teams at the top of the ladder, but also because of the ones outside of the top 25.
1. Clemson (4-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast) (AP Poll: No. 2)
Clemson was supposed to demolish BC. After all, just last year, the Tigers poured on 56 points on the road against the Eagles. That was hardly the case on Saturday. Up until the fourth quarter, quarterback Kelly Bryant looked a little lost. He was fine running the rock, but when it came to dropping back to pass, the junior had a difficult time handling duress. Bryant threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball once. BC took away the big play, forcing Bryant and the backfield to pick up bits and pieces at a time. To make matters worse, Clemson lost the field position battle, big time. Drive after drive, Bryant and the offense started inside of their own 10-yard line. Luckily for head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers snapped out of their funk in the fourth quarter. Clemson racked up 222 yards of total offense in the final frame, en route to four-consecutive touchdowns. Under Swinney, the Tigers haven’t always been perfect. But they find ways to win.
2. Virginia Tech (4-0) (AP Poll: No. 12) ↑ 2
A win over Old Dominion is nothing to write home about, but it’s a win nonetheless. Like last week, the Hokies had no trouble scoring. Quarterback Josh Jackson continued to impress, passing for a trio of touchdowns. On the ground, VT kept on rolling with its committee of running backs. Five different guys—Coleman Fox, Steven Peoples, Travon McMillian, Deshawn McClease, and A.J. Bush—recorded 30 or more yards on the ground. Defensively, the Hokies couldn’t have played better. VT kept the Monarchs off the board for the entire game—the Hokies’ second shutout of the season—and allowed just 149 yards of total offense. VT got a huge win over West Virginia in Week One, and since then, the Hokies have been padding the win column. We’ll see how far they have come when they take on Clemson this week.
3. Miami (2-0) (AP Poll: No. 14) ↓ 1
The Hurricanes looked rusty at the start of Saturday’s game against Toledo, and reasonably so. Because of Hurricane Irma, Miami was sidelined for 21 days—about a week less than most program’s summer training camp. Naturally, it took a while for Miami to find its footing. But once it did, the Hurricanes took over the game. Miami outscored Toledo 41-14 in the final 21 minutes of play. All three of quarterback Malik Rosier’s passing touchdowns came in the second half. And despite missing about half of the game, running back Mark Walton became the sixth FBS player in the past decade to run for over 200 yards on 11 or less carries in the past decade. One concern for Miami has to be the secondary. After losing Jamal Carter, Rayshawn Jenkins, and its top corner, Corn Elder, this past offseason, the backend looks to be the Hurricane’s achilles heel. Granted the Rockets have one of the better passing attacks in the country, 342 yards and three touchdowns is not a statline you’d like to see, no matter who you’re playing.
4. Louisville (3-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) (AP Poll: No. 17) ↑ 1
Louisville’s date with Kent State couldn’t have come at a better time. One week removed from a blowout-loss to Clemson, the Cardinals needed a bounce-back game. And although the Golden Flashes are one of the worst teams in the FBS, Louisville’s performance on Saturday could very well right the ship. Quarterback Lamar Jackson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, breaking the school’s career touchdown record, previously set by Chris Redman. Even without his go-to target, Jaylen Smith, Jackson practically reached the 300-yard passing mark. Still, he wasn’t perfect. The defending Heisman Trophy winner threw two interceptions on the day. But, for the first time all year, he didn’t have to be Superman. The defense had his back. Louisville only allowed 150 yards of total offense and three points—both of which are season bests. I know it’s Kent State, but this is what happens when Jackson actually has a defense.
5. Florida State (0-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 3
For the first time in 28 years, FSU is 0-2. Saturday’s 27-21 loss to North Carolina State was all about missed opportunities. True freshman quarterback James Blackman did a fine job moving the ball downfield, but once the offense got itself in scoring position, it stalled. The Seminoles reached the red zone seven times. Only one of those seven trips resulted in a touchdown. Ricky Aguayo missing a chip shot and Blackman fumbling deep in Wolfpack territory also cost FSU points. You might be asking yourself why a winless team sits at the No. 5 spot. You have to put things in perspective. Losing a starting quarterback is one thing, and a 21-day layoff is another. This team is way too talented, especially on the defensive side of the ball, to dismiss. In due time, head coach Jimbo Fisher should have the Seminoles back on track.
6. North Carolina State (3-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 2
Over the past few years, NC State has been a trendy upset pick. The Wolfpack have come close to pulling off some marquee wins, but time and time again their inability to finish has prevented them from making any major moves in the national polls, let alone the ACC. But on Saturday, NC State finally made a name for itself. The Wolfpack took down then-No. 12 FSU on the road—their first road win over a ranked opponent since 2008. Once again, NC State rode quarterback Ryan Finley and the passing game. Finley established a rapport with halfback Jaylen Samuels. In the end, Samuels recorded 12 receptions for 64 yards and a score. Not to mention that he also rushed for a touchdown, and completed a 25-yard pass. This is a huge win for the program. But if NC State really does make a run, its Week One loss to South Carolina is going to come back to bite.
7. Duke (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
Quarterback Daniel Jones has cooled off a bit since his 400-plus yard day against Northwestern two weeks ago. But that’s not to say that the sophomore isn’t playing well. Per usual, Jones was turnover free on Saturday. He passed for a shade over 200 yards and a score. Like last week, he had a running game that he could rely on. The dynamic duo of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson combined for 146 yards on the ground and one touchdown. Still, Duke found itself trailing its in-state rival with one quarter to go. The Blue Devils turned it around when it mattered most though. In large part because of cornerback Byron Fields Jr.’s 61-yard pick six, Duke outscored UNC 14-0 in the final frame to pull of the victory. Through four weeks, the Blue Devils are untainted. But if Duke wants to keep it that way, its offense must finish drives.
8. Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
We still didn’t know if GT running back KirVonte Benson was for real after the sophomore followed up his solid season debut with just 26 yards against Jacksonville State. Now we do. Benson made a fool of the Pittsburgh defense on Saturday, rushing for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Couple that with quarterback TaQuon Marshall’s production, and you get another monster day on the ground for the Yellow Jackets. All in all, GT totaled 436 rushing yards and five touchdowns. But there’s still work to be done. The Yellow Jackets coughed up the ball four times. That being said, that stat just makes their defensive performance all the more impressive. GT didn’t allow a single point off of those four turnovers, and only gave up 17 on the day. We have to remember though, that Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled against everyone this year, including Youngstown State.
9. Wake Forest (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast)
Wake Forest’s matchup against Appalachian State on Saturday was the definition of a trap game. Coming off three-straight blowout wins, the Demon Deacons entered Boone, N.C. unbeaten, and probably expecting to stay that way, considering the quality of their opponent. Plain and simple, Wake Forest wasn’t ready for the Mountaineers. Appalachian State jumped out to a 9-3 halftime lead. The Mountaineers pulled everything out the bag, including a reverse, flea-flicker that was good for the only touchdown of the opening half. Overall, Appalachian State outgained the Demon Deacons 494-344. But Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford did just enough in the latter portion of play to put his team in position to win. If it wasn’t for a blocked 39-yard field goal, the Demon Deacons would be staring at a loss. Wake Forest can’t have that sluggish of a first half again if it wants to make noise in the ACC.
10. North Carolina (1-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast)
Entering the fourth quarter on Saturday, UNC had a chance to not only pick up its second win of the season, but also to reclaim bragging rights. Up 17-13 over Duke, the Tar Heels had put themselves in position to bring the Victory Bell back to Chapel Hill. But the game was far from over. The Blue Devils scored a touchdown early in the period. Now trailing, UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt was left with a bit more than six minutes to lead his team down the field for a go-ahead touchdown or a game-tying field goal. He was on his way to doing that before he he was picked off by Fields Jr. The redshirt senior cornerback took the interception 61 yards to the house, all but sealing the game. On the bright side, aside from the pick-six, Surratt looked pretty good. The redshirt freshman threw for 259 yards and a score. He also ran for 77 yards and another touchdown. This team is improving by the week, but injuries, especially at the receiver position, could hurt UNC’s chances in the coming weeks.
11. Syracuse (2-2) ↑ 1
No non-SEC team has gone on the road and defeated Louisiana State in the past 49 years. Syracuse came pretty close. Trailing by three scores at half, quarterback Eric Dungey and Co. rallied to score 16 points in the third quarter to draw within striking distance of the No. 25 Tigers. The Orange’s offense was partially responsible for the comeback. But it’s defense deserves the bulk of the credit. All night, the front four wreaked havoc on LSU’s quarterbacks. The group recorded two sacks, two quarterback hurries, and a safety. It was also was the driving force in shutting down the Tigers’ lead running back, Derrius Guice. Offensively, Syracuse came pretty close to matching LSU’s statline. Once again, Dungey showcased the ability to create and improvise outside of the pocket—best exemplified by his 14-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. The Orange have one of the toughest schedules in the country. If Saturday was any indication, they might be due for an upset one of these weeks.
12. Virginia (3-1) ↑ 2
Talk about surprises. UVA went into Boise State on Saturday and laid down the law. The Cavaliers handed the Broncos their worst home loss (42-23) in 17 years. For the second-consecutive week, quarterback Kurt Benkert looked like a premier gunslinger. The senior tossed three touchdowns and racked up 273 yards through the air. But, as a whole, the Cavaliers’ offense had its best performance of the year. Unlike the first three weeks of the season, UVA was extremely productive on the ground. Jordan Ellis headed a rushing attack that totaled 167 yards—20 more than the Cavaliers logged in their first two games combined. In just four games, UVA has already surpassed last season’s win total. This team was was supposed to round out the bottom of the ACC. Obviously, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has other plans. This was a statement win, but until the Cavaliers pick up a victory in the ACC, it’s hard to say this team is one of the 10-best in the conference.
13. Pittsburgh (1-3, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 2
No team in the ACC has had a harder schedule to start the season than Pittsburgh. The Panthers followed their season opener with games against No. 4 Penn State, then-No. 6 Oklahoma State, and a very explosive Georgia Tech. The lack of consistent play at the quarterback position hasn’t helped either. Ben DiNucci got the nod over Southern California transfer Max Browne for the first time this year. But after leading a touchdown drive on Pittsburgh’s opening series, he too struggled to move the ball downfield. Like its first game of 2017, the Panthers failed to muster any points in the second half. The scoring drought prompted head coach Pat Narduzzi to reinsert Browne. That didn’t change anything. Last week, Pittsburgh couldn’t handle the Oklahoma State passing game. This time around, against Georgia Tech, it couldn’t stop the run. Marshall and Benson ran all over the Panthers, from start to finish. Without a quarterback, this team isn’t what it used to be.
14. Boston College (1-3, 0-2 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
BC entered Death Valley as a 34-point underdog on Saturday. But it certainly didn’t look like one for the first three quarters of play. Heading into the final frame, the Eagles were on pace to concede just 359 yards of total offense—about 150 yards less than Clemson had averaged all season. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid’s group forced two turnovers and, for the most part, limited chunk plays. Above all else, the unit kept BC in the game. But eventually, fatigue set in. Clemson tore apart the Eagles in the fourth quarter. Over the course of 12 minutes, the Tigers scored four touchdowns—all of which were on the ground. BC’s offense, on the other hand, mustered just 37 yards. Saturday marked the second-straight week the Eagles have collapsed in the second half. Even if their defense plays like it did over the weekend, BC is going to have to score some points in order to win games, especially in the ACC.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor