Clemson wasn’t supposed to reach the national title game, let alone the College Football Playoff (CFP) in 2015. Coming off a 10-3 season and a Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma, the Tigers entered the season at the No. 12 spot.
Week-by-week, quarterback Deshaun Watson and Clemson slowly climbed the rankings. Even so, it took a while for analysts and fans to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon. But after Clemson upset Notre Dame, steamrolled Miami, and edged Florida State, it was hard to not root for head coach Dabo Swinney’s guys. The Tigers went from being just another good team in the ACC to a national favorite.
By Week 10, Clemson was the No. 1 team in the country. And not too long after that the Tigers received their first-ever invitation to play in the CFP. Although Clemson was the only undefeated team in the country, it felt as if the Tigers were still the underdog. So when they lost to Alabama in the national title game, people applauded Swinney and Co. for just getting there. But Watson wanted more than that.
In 2016, there was a sense of urgency. It would most likely be Watson’s final year at Clemson, and perhaps the program’s last year of contention for quite a few years. This time, the Tigers failed to run the table in the regular season. Instead, they got the perfect storybook ending—a last-second victory against none other than Alabama.
Clemson finally got its ring. But once Watson departed for the NFL, people started to write off the Tigers. Many thought that the team’s championship window had shut. That was before Kelly Bryant took the field.
The junior dual-threat quarterback has led Clemson to a 3-0 start, including back-to-back wins over top-15 opponents. Bryant’s done it through air and on the ground. He currently accounts for about 57 percent of the Tigers’ total offense. A few months ago, no one knew who Bryant was. Now he’s a household name.
The ACC’s full of surprises, and Bryant is one of them.
1. Clemson (3-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) (AP Poll: No. 2)
Bryant looked like Watson on Saturday against then-No. 14 Louisville. The junior eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the first time in his career and carried the ball for 26 yards and a couple of touchdowns. The Tigers continued to divvy up the carries in the backfield, and once again, it paid off. Running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster were at the forefront of Clemson’s punishing rushing attack. The Tigers ran all over the Cardinals, gaining 297 yards on 6.1 yards per clip. It was the Clemson defense though that put this one away. The Tigers became the first team this year to intercept Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and hold the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to under 100 yards rushing. Clemson’s defense has always been good. But its offense is only getting better by the week.
2. Florida State (0-1) (AP Poll: No. 12)
As expected, FSU didn’t suit up for its Week Three game against Miami. It would have been fun to see the two Florida heavyweights battle it out, but obviously Hurricane Irma had other plans. That game has been postponed until Oct. 7, but for the moment, head coach Jimbo Fisher is focused on the Seminoles’ matchup against North Carolina State. After three weeks of buildup, true freshman quarterback James Blackman will make his collegiate debut this Saturday. Fortunately for him, he’ll be going up against a Wolfpack pass defense that concedes about 282.5 yards through the air per game. But it’s more than likely that Blackman will play the role of game manager in this one. With Cam Akers in the backfield and FSU’s defense, he might not need to throw the ball more than 15-20 times.
3. Miami (1-0) (AP Poll: No. 14)
Like the Seminoles, Miami will virtually be starting its season over again when its hosts Toledo this coming Saturday. Having not played in close to three weeks, the Hurricanes are well rested, but also probably a bit rusty. Luckily for head coach Mark Richt, his guys will be able to ease back into things in a game, in which the Hurricanes are heavy favorites. It’ll be interesting to see how Miami’s marque defense fairs against the Rockets. Toledo has racked up at least 37 points in every contest this season.
4. Virginia Tech (3-0) (AP Poll: No. 13) ↑ 1
If you glance at the score of VT’s 64-17 victory over East Carolina, you’d never guess that the Hokies trailed the Pirates after one quarter of play. Head coach Justin Fuente’s group got off to a sluggish start on both sides of the ball, allowing East Carolina to take control of the game early. But from the second quarter on, it was all VT. In the third quarter alone, quarterback Josh Jackson tossed four touchdowns, and the Hokies tacked on 34 points. Jackson and wide receiver Cam Phillips cluttered the box score. Both took the fourth quarter off and still had career highs across the board. Jackson threw for 372 yards and five touchdowns. On the receiving end, Phillips hauled in 14 passes for 189 yards and three scores. Every week, Jackson looks more confident and the Hokies look more impressive.
5. Louisville (2-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast) (AP Poll: No. 19) ↓ 1
You could see this one coming from a mile away. Jackson had to be absolutely perfect for Louisville to have a chance against Clemson. And when you’re going against on the best front sevens in all of college football, that’s practically impossible. As soon as Jackson threw a pick-six—his first interception of the year—midway through the third quarter, the Cardinals fell apart. Clemson poured on 21 more points to cap off a 47-21 victory. For the third-straight game, Louisville’s defense couldn’t contain its opponent. The Cardinals gave up a whopping 613 total yards to Bryant and Co. But that wasn’t the only problem. Jackson only completed 21-of-42 pass attempts, a performance reminiscent of last year. Remember, despite winning the Heisman Trophy, Jackson connected on just 56.2 percent of his pass attempts in 2016.
6. Duke (3-0) ↑ 1
Baylor threw a bunch of stunts at Duke on Saturday, but that didn’t deter the Blue Devils from running the ball down the Bears’ throat. Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown combined for 262 rushing yards and three touchdowns. With quarterback Daniel Jones constantly under duress, it was Wilson and Brown who had to pick up the slack on offense. The defense did its part too. Duke forced four turnovers, including an interception that Ben Humphreys took 22 yards to the house. With the victory, the Blue Devils moved to 3-0 for the just the second time since 1994. Perhaps if Duke blew out Baylor, it might have snuck into the Top-25. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils will have another chance crack the AP Poll this week, when they take on long-time rival North Carolina.
7. Georgia Tech (1-1) ↓ 1
GT is the third ACC team to be affected by Hurricane Irma. The Yellow Jackets’ game against Central Florida was canceled on Saturday because of the treacherous storm. With a week off, head coach Paul Johnson was given the opportunity to polish his lethal rushing attack. Even though GT thwomped Jacksonville State last week, I wouldn’t doubt that the Yellow Jackets still have a bad taste in their mouth after their Week One, double overtime loss to Tennessee. Quarterback TaQuon Marshall and GT get a limping Pittsburgh team at home this week. If the Panthers’ defense plays anything like it did against No. 6 Oklahoma State, the Yellow Jackets could be in for a field day. There are still concerns on the defensive side of the ball though. We still don’t know if the unit’s second-half collapse in the season opener was just a fluke.
8. North Carolina State (2-1)
Since North Carolina State lost its season opener to South Carolina, the Wolfpack has done nothing but pad the win column. Furman was the Wolfpack’s latest victim. The FCS representative was simply overmatched by NC State offense. The Wolfpack found the end zone on four of their first five drives. But they really put the game out of reach in the third quarter. Two touchdown runs and a pick-six gave NC State complete control of this one. Unlike the first two games this season, the Wolfpack actually had a decent rushing attack on Saturday. The team totaled 242 yards on the ground and running back Jaylen Samuels scored three times. Quarterback Ryan Finley was just as accurate as ever. The junior—who is seventh in the nation in completion percentage—went 22-of-27 with one passing touchdown. We’ll see what he and the Wolfpack can do against FSU this coming week.
9. Wake Forest (3-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast)
The blowouts just keep on coming for head coach Dave Clawson. Wake Forest has outscored its opponents 131-27—the fifth-largest scoring differential in the county—thus far. But the Demon Deacons have yet to be tested. Their three wins have come against Presbyterian, a turnover happy Boston College, and Utah State. Still, Wake Forest’s most recent victory wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. After all, quarterback John Wolford and the Demon Deacons dropped a game to the Aggies three years ago. This time, however, the senior signal caller redeemed himself. Led by Wolford, Wake Forest stormed out of the gates. By halftime, the Demon Deacons had outgained Utah State 397-77 and were up 30-0. Wolford finished the game with 295 yards of total offense and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). Wake Forest is 3-0 to start the season, but don’t let that fool you. The Demon Deacons did the same thing last year.
10. North Carolina (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 1
It looks like the Tar Heels have found their quarterback. For the first two weeks of the season, head coach Larry Fedora split time between redshirt freshman Chaz Surratt and LSU transfer Brandon Harris. But against Old Dominion on Saturday, Fedora stuck with Surratt for nearly the entire game. The redshirt freshman completed 16-of-24 pass attempts for 257 yards and a score. And although he was relatively ineffective running the ball all day, he scampered for two red zone touchdowns. As a team, the Tar Heels ran the rock better than they have all year. Running backs Jordan Brown and Michael Carter combined for 192 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Even though the defense played remarkably better than it did the past two games, it’s hard to say that the unit has improved, considering the opponent it was up against. Regardless, UNC got a much needed win heading into next week’s game against Duke.
11. Pittsburgh (1-2) ↓ 1
It’s hard to believe that Pittsburgh was one of the most prolific scoring teams in the nation last year. So far, the Panthers are averaging a mere 17.5 points per game—24.5 less than they did in 2016. Saturday’s 59-21 loss to Oklahoma State was just the latest case of Pittsburgh’s offensive inefficiencies. Once again, quarterback Max Browne struggled to move the ball the down the field. As a result, the South California transfer was yanked in the second quarter. Ben DiNucci slid into the starting role, and immediately orchestrated back-to-back touchdown drives. The sophomore didn’t play nearly as well in the second half, but he definitely did enough to earn the job. While the Panthers may look drastically different on offense, they haven’t changed one bit on the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s secondary gave up 423 passing yards and five touchdowns to Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State in the first half alone.
12. Syracuse (2-1) ↑ 1
Almost two years ago, quarterback Eric Dungey took a hit to the head against Central Michigan. He was forced to leave the game—just his second start at Syracuse—with a concussion. But on Saturday, Dungey was the one making people dizzy. Originally down 17-10 late in the second quarter, the Orange had to rally to tie the game before halftime. But a different Syracuse team came out of the break. In the third quarter alone, the Orange outgained the Chippewas 333-60. Dungey was a huge part of the outburst. On the day, the junior passed for 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also scrambled for 105 yards and another score. If they can find a balance, their offense should keep Syracuse out of the cellar of the ACC.
13. Boston College (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
For two and a half quarters, it looked as if BC could actually knock off Notre Dame. Then, all hell broke loose. Over the course of the last 20 minutes of play, the Irish scored five touchdowns—all on the ground. The Eagles’ run defense, typically their strong suit, gave up a total of 515 rushing yards. Not to mention that Notre Dame did it on 10.1 yards per carry, a new modern era record. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams tore the BC defense apart, ripping off six runs for 30 or more yards. Sure, the Eagles reached the 400-yard mark on offense for the first time this season. But that’s just a silver lining. BC has one week to figure out how to stop a dual-threat quarterback, and the run as a whole. Because on Saturday it’ll face another test: Clemson.
14. Virginia (2-1)
Quarterback Kurt Benkert had himself a day against Connecticut. The fifth-year senior passed for 455 yards—breaking his own school record that he set last season—and three touchdowns. He was efficient too. Benkert completed 75 percent of his passes and spread the ball around evenly. When all was said and done, three different UVA wideouts finished the game with over 100 yards receiving. For the first time all season, the Cavaliers’ offense really blossomed. Unfortunately for UVA fans, the team’s performance isn’t indicative of what’s to come. The Cavaliers were playing a UConn team that, just last year, was outscored 71-3 by East Carolina and Boston College. To put that in perspective, both of those schools were in the bottom third in scoring offense in 2016. I’m still not convinced that Benkert and UVA can tussle with the big boys.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor