Midway through the 2017 season, it appeared as if the ACC power structure was locked. Clemson was poised to make another College Football Playoff run. An undefeated Miami was right on the Tigers’ heels. And Virginia Tech was a surprising Coastal Division title contender. But it was the two teams that rounded out the top five that really raised some eyebrows.
For the first time since 2002, North Carolina State was on pace to finish the year with a double-digit win total. After losing to South Carolina in the season opener, the Wolfpack rattled off six straight victories, including four in conference play—the program’s longest win streak in 15 years. Not only was NC State a legitimate ACC Championship Contender, but it was also in the running for a New Year’s Six Bowl. Then, there was Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets’ record was nothing to marvel at, head coach Paul Johnson’s group was just a few plays away from joining Miami as the only two undefeated teams in the ACC. The combination of TaQuon Marshall and KirVonte Benson was lethal in Johnson’s triple-option system. Not to mention that GT had one of the better defenses in the league.
But over the course of the past five weeks, both teams are a combined 3-6. Slowly, but surely, NC State has fallen out of the top 25, and the Yellow Jackets’ inconsistency has peaked—on Saturday, GT was dealt a 23-point loss by a reeling Duke team, just one week after the Yellow Jackets upset then-No. 17 VT.
At this point, Clemson and Miami are far ahead of every other team in the ACC. The Hokies are one loss away from dropping out of the rankings again, and NC State and GT are back to being average. With the season winding down, the bulk of the conference is still fair game.
1. Miami (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 2)
As some might have expected, the Hurricanes, who were coming off wins over both VT and Notre Dame, had somewhat of a hangover against Virginia. On two separate occasions, Miami trailed by two touchdowns—a deficit that the Hurricanes hadn’t come back from in 15 years. But, right on cue, Miami turned it on when it mattered most. Behind Malik Rosier’s fifth three-touchdown passing game of the season, Miami battled back to score the game’s final 30 points. The Hurricanes might not be perfect, but they’re as clutch as any team in the country.
2. Clemson (10-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 3)
Unlike the last few weeks, Clemson didn’t have to break a sweat on Saturday, as the Tigers took a break from ACC play and hosted The Citadel. After just 26 Clemson offensive plays, head coach Dabo Swinney’s team was already up, 28-0. When all was said and done, the defending national champions scored on 10 of their 13 drives. The blowout victory gave Swinney a chance to rest his starters and let some of his bench players get valuable game-day experience.
3. Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 25) ↑ 1
Josh Jackson only completed 17 of his 37 pass attempts against Pittsburgh, and never really established a rhythm. He was hardly the hero of the day—that title goes to Greg Stroman. The Hokies’ cornerback picked off a Panthers pass in the fourth quarter, setting up VT’s game-winning touchdown. And with three seconds to go in the game, Stroman broke up a pass in the end zone to keep the Hokies’ goal-line stand alive. Once again, it was VT’s defense that saved the day, coming up with four straight stops at its own 1-yard line to seal the victory.
4. Wake Forest (7-4, 4-3 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 2
Without much of a running game, it was up to John Wolford to carry the Wake Forest offense against in-state Atlantic Division rival then-No. 19 NC State. Per usual, he was up to the task. The senior tossed three or more touchdowns for the third time in the past four weeks, and led the Demon Deacons to a fourth-quarter comeback. Wake Forest snapped a three-game losing streak to the Wolfpack, all while earning its first top-25 victory since 2011. The Demon Deacons are peaking at the right time.
5. North Carolina State (7-4, 5-2 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 2
Down six to Wake Forest, Ryan Finley marched the Wolfpack down the field with just a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The junior dialed up a pass to Emeka Emezie, who then juked his defender, making a push for the goal line. But before he could score, Demon Deacons linebacker Demetrius Kemp jarred the ball loose, and Wake Forest recovered. One simple play, and NC State’s record took another hit. The Wolfpack can somewhat salvage its once record-breaking season when North Carolina comes to town on Saturday.
6. Louisville (7-4, 4-4 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 1
Lamar Jackson and Louisville didn’t put up quite the same numbers that they did against Syracuse last year. But they came pretty close. In just over three quarters of play, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner passed for 270 yards and rushed for 111 more, accounting for four total touchdowns and surpassing Chris Redman to become the program’s all-time career yardage leader. But probably most impressive of all, the Cardinals’ defense forced four interceptions and held an ACC opponent under 20 points for the first time all season.
7. Boston College (6-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 1
It probably took longer than Eagles head coach Steve Addazio would have liked, but BC eventually found its offensive mojo against Connecticut on Saturday at Fenway Park. But as soon as the Eagles got going, this one was over. Despite sitting out the final quarter of play, A.J. Dillon finished the game with 200 yards on the ground. BC totaled 330 rushing yards as a team. There’s no evidence that the Eagles won’t do the same to a Syracuse defense that has allowed an average of 391 rushing yards over the past two weeks.
8. Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 3
Week after week, the Yellow Jackets have casual fans and analysts scratching their heads. One game removed from upsetting VT, they were blown out by Duke on Saturday—a team whose last win was in September. GT was outscored 23-0 in the second half, in large part due to its porous run defense. In a hole, the Yellow Jackets had to drift away from the triple-option and start airing it out. That didn’t pan out well, as TaQuon Marshall completed just three passes. The Yellow Jackets will have to beat No. 7 Georgia if they want to go bowling.
9. Virginia (6-5, 3-4 Atlantic Coast)
For more than two hours of Saturday’s game against No. 2 Miami, Kurt Benkert was practically flawless. The senior completed 18 of his first 19 pass attempts and tossed four touchdowns in a little bit more than one half of play. But eventually the Hurricanes’ turnover-hungry defense figured out UVA’s one-dimensional attack. As the game went on, Benkert lost his touch, and the Cavaliers’ potential upset turned into a moral victory of sorts. Since starting 5-1, UVA has won just one game.
10. Florida State (4-6, 3-5 Atlantic Coast)
Entering Saturday, the Seminoles had yet to score more than 30 points in a game all season. They came close to tripling that mark against Delaware State, as head coach Jimbo Fisher’s team poured on 77 points in FSU’s fourth victory of the year. A handful of players saw some more time on the field than they normally would, especially at the skill positions. Still, even with the victory, the Seminoles are two wins short of a bowl bid. They need to defeat Florida and Louisiana Monroe in the following weeks to receive a postseason invitation.
11. Duke (5-6, 2-5 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 3
Finally, Daniel Jones looked like himself again. The sophomore gunslinger, who has wrestled with his accuracy for the past two months, completed close to 70 percent of his passes in a season-changing 43-20 win over GT on Saturday. The Blue Devils’ run game was even more lethal. In addition to Jones’ 91 yards on the ground, the tandem of Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown racked up more than 180 rushing yards. It’s crazy to think that Duke, fresh off a six-game losing streak, has a better chance to clinch a bowl than the Yellow Jackets.
12. Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-5 Atlantic Coast)
The Panthers had four chances to keep their bowl hopes alive, and upset VT on the road. With less than 30 seconds to go, neither Darrin Hall or Kenny Pickett could get the ball in the end zone. That’s right, Kenny Pickett. Yet again, head coach Pat Narduzzi switched signal callers mid-game. Ben DiNucci was benched after throwing an interception late in the first quarter. Just when it looked like Pittsburgh had found its identity, the Panthers’ running attack came to a screeching halt, and the quarterback carousel returned.
13. Syracuse (4-7, 2-5 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 2
Ever since Syracuse upset Clemson, the Orange haven’t won a single game. Defensively, they’ve hit rock bottom. Against Louisville, they gave up more 700 total yards of offense for the second-consecutive game. And it’s not like Syracuse’s offense is anything to gloat about either. Coming off a fine performance versus Wake Forest, backup quarterback Zack Mahoney threw two interceptions on Saturday. His replacement, Rex Culpepper, didn’t fare any better, throwing two more picks. All the Orange have to look forward to is their home finale against BC.
14. North Carolina (3-8, 1-6 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
After punting on their first possession of the game, the Tar Heels scored six straight touchdowns en route to a resounding 65-10 victory over Western Carolina on Saturday. He may have been playing an FCS team, but Nathan Elliott made his case that he’s the future of UNC football. The sophomore quarterback tossed four first-half touchdowns and recorded a bit more than 280 yards of total offense. The Tar Heels’ season has been lost for a couple months now, but they’re making the most of a redemptive November.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor