As soon as Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois went down with a season-ending knee injury in third quarter of the Seminoles’ Week One loss to Alabama, people started pointing to James Blackman as the reason why then-No. 3 FSU wouldn’t make it to the national championship game, let alone the College Football Playoff. But after two months of play, it’s safe to say that the true freshman isn’t the only one holding the Seminoles back.
Running back Cam Akers has been underwhelming thus far, considering the fact that he was supposed to fill in the shoes of now-Minnesota Viking Dalvin Cook. The highly touted five-star recruit is averaging just a shade over 70 yards on the ground. But he shouldn’t shoulder the blame either. He’s had no room to run—the byproduct of a weak Seminole offensive line. The group is even worse in pass protection. FSU gives up about three sacks a game, ranking 116th in the nation in that department. Top to it off, the Seminoles’ run defense has taken a huge step back this season, particularly in the past three weeks. No one individual is responsible for FSU’s fallout. Rather, the whole team is.
Head coach Jimbo Fisher is in uncharted territory. At 2-5, FSU sits at the bottom of the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Seminoles haven’t fallen to three games below .500 since Bobby Bowden’s first season at the helm, back in 1976. In order to book a ticket to the postseason, FSU will have to win out—that means beating No. 4 Clemson.
The Seminoles’ decline is indicative of not only the ACC, but really college football as a whole. Dynasties may be common, but so are off years.
1. Clemson (7-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 4)
Kelly Bryant, who left the Tigers’ previous two games with an ankle injury and a concussion, respectively, finally looked like himself in Clemson’s 24-10 win against Georgia Tech on Saturday. In fact, he played even better than usual. The junior threw for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns—both of which came in the first quarter. He also ran for a team-high 67 yards on 12 carries. Defensively, Clemson’s performance was nothing new. For the third-straight year, head coach Dabo Swinney’s team shut down the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option attack. The Tigers held GT—the ACC’s top rushing team—to 198 yards on the ground, and reaffirmed their place on top of the conference.
2. Virginia Tech (7-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 13) ↑ 2
It wasn’t pretty, but Virginia Tech got the job done. Like last week, quarterback Josh Jackson had trouble hitting his receivers in the win over Duke on Saturday. But this time, his accuracy blunders were expected. It started downpouring in the second half, and the passing game was all but irrelevant from that point on. That’s when the redshirt freshman’s legs came in handy. Already up three scores, Jackson sealed the game with a six-yard touchdown run toward the tail end of the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit played lights out, holding the Blue Devils to 183 yards of total offense. With the easy wins out of the way, VT will now turn to Miami—a game that could very well decide the Coastal Division.
3. Miami (7-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 10) ↓ 1
Miami may still be perfect on paper, but in reality, the Hurricanes are far from flawless. Head coach Mark Richt’s group has won its past three games by a combined 13 points. But Miami’s last victory was its most concerning. The Hurricanes barely escaped Chapel Hill, N.C. with a five-point victory over a one-win North Carolina team on Saturday. As a team, Miami only managed 59 yards on the ground, and coughed the ball up three times. Consequently, quarterback Malik Rosier had to put the team on his back. The junior threw for a career-high 356 yards and all three of the Hurricanes’ touchdowns. In the coming weeks, Miami won’t be able to afford boneheaded mistakes. The Hurricanes will have No. 13 VT and No. 3 Notre Dame on tap.
4. North Carolina State (6-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast) (CFP Ranking: No. 20) ↓ 1
The streak is over. North Carolina State dropped its first game since early September on Saturday to a Notre Dame team that is currently slotted to earn a bid to the College Football Playoff. The 35-14 loss served as a wake-up call of sorts for the Wolfpack. Quarterback Ryan Finley completed less 56 percent of his passes and was intercepted for the first time all season. Unfortunately for the junior, the turnover cost his team six, as Julian Love returned it 69 yards to the house—the first of the Irish’s three-consecutive touchdowns. Running back Josh Adams torched the Wolfpack defense on the ground. The Heisman Trophy prospect poured on 202 yards and a score. NC State is significantly better than it has been in year’s past, but it’s not a national title contender.
5. Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast)
Things don’t bode well when teams take TaQuon Marshall out of the game. For the second time in three weeks, the Yellow Jackets’ quarterback was stopped in his tracks. No. 4 Clemson kept the junior in check, limiting him to a mere 23 rushing yards. Marshall had no luck throwing the ball either. He finished 3-of-13 for just 32 yards through the air. KirVonte Benson racked up 129 yards out of the backfield, but that was nearly enough to make up for Marshall’s struggles. Coming into the game, GT had only punted the ball an ACC-best 21 times. But on Saturday, they sent out Pressley Harvin III nine times to boot the ball away. Marshall and GT should bounce back next week against Virginia.
6. Boston College (5-4, 3-3 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 1
It might have looked silly when BC students stormed the field, following the Eagles’ 35-3 victory over a reeling FSU team. But the celebration was warranted. The win marked BC’s first against the Seminoles in eight years. And, more importantly, it was the Eagles’ first ACC home victory, with class in session, since 2013. From start to finish, BC looked like the better team. Quarterback Anthony Brown’s numbers were below average, but the reigning ACC Rookie of the Week accounted for two of the Eagles’ five touchdowns. Once again, running back A.J. Dillon stole the show, recording 149 rushing yards and a score. For the first time under head coach Steve Addazio, BC is heading into its bye week on a winning streak—three games at that.
7. Wake Forest (5-3, 2-3 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 4
John Wolford put up Lamar Jackson numbers in Wake Forest’s 42-32 win over Louisville. The senior became the first Demon Deacon in 19 years to pass for more than 400 yards, throwing for 461. He completed 28-of-34 pass attempts and tossed five touchdowns—four of which went to redshirt freshman Greg Dortch. Oh, and he ran for one too. Wolford’s video-game like performance powered Wake Forest to its first win in more than a month. He got some help from Matt Colburn who rushed for a career-high 134 yards. All in all, the Demon Deacons racked up 625 total yards of offense. If only they could have rationed some of those for next week’s matchup against Notre Dame.
8. Louisville (5-4, 2-4 Atlantic Coast)
One week removed from finally limiting a Power Five offense, Louisville reverted back to its old self in its loss to Wake Forest. The Cardinals conceded 28 points in the first half—the amount they gave up all of last week—and allowed over 600 yards of offense for the second time this year. The absence of cornerback Jaire Alexander was certainly a factor, as Wolford repeatedly attacked Louisville’s secondary. Jackson and the Cardinals were already down 18 points at the break. As expected, the junior found the end zone a handful times, but, per usual, that wasn’t enough to make up for Louisville’s porous defense—a unit that makes every opposing offense look good.
9. Syracuse (4-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast)
The Orange had the week off, but will find themselves back in Florida come Saturday. Syracuse will look to become the latest team to knock off FSU in Tallahassee. If quarterback Eric Dungey, who was picked off four times in the first half of the Orange’s loss to Miami last week, rebounds, the Seminoles could have another lopsided loss on their hands. After all, Dungey put up 278 yards and three touchdowns in Syracuse’s upset victory over Clemson just two weeks ago.
10. Pittsburgh (4-5, 2-3 Atlantic Coast) ↑ 2
While some teams in the Coastal Division are falling apart, Pittsburgh is on the rise. The past two weeks, head coach Pat Narduzzi has deviated away from the Panthers’ typical pass-first offense. Thanks to running back Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh now features a balanced attack—one that makes quarterback Ben DiNucci’s job a lot more manageable. The switch has resulted in back-to-back wins, the latest over UVA. Hall surpassed the 100-yard mark for the second-straight week, Qadree Ollison chipped in an additional 47 yards on the ground. The Panthers got off to a 21-point lead, their defense took care of the rest. Pittsburgh sacked Kurt Benkert three times, and stopped the Cavaliers on fourth down on four separate occasions. The Panthers are coming together at the right time.
11. Virginia (5-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 1
It’s starting to look like UVA peaked too early. After winning five of its first six games, the Cavaliers have been outscored 72-24 in their last two games. Benkert looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and rightly so. In Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh, the senior was sacked three times and hurried a total of eight times. Without a substantial run game, the offense has pretty much been one-dimensional. When that’s the case, defenses salivate. The Panthers turned UVA over on downs twice near the goal line. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has to stop the bleeding before it gets too bad. The Cavaliers have four more chances to clinch a bowl game. But with GT, Louisville, Miami, and VT still on the schedule, UVA losing out is not out of the realm of possibility.
12. Florida State (2-5, 2-4 Atlantic Coast) ↓ 6
Take away a few BC drops here and there, and FSU’s 32-point blowout loss could have just have easily been a 40-point massacre. The Seminoles were outplayed in all three phases of the game. Blackman had no time to throw in the pocket, often paying the price for his offensive line’s inability to stop the rush. The true freshman was sacked twice, hurried once, and nearly knocked out of the game with a punishing blow to his shoulder. Not to mention that he was picked off for the seventh time in the past four games. FSU was just as ineffective in the run game. Averaging 17.4 points per game and one loss short of missing its first bowl game since 1981, the Seminoles have just about hit rock bottom.
13. Duke (4-5, 1-5 Atlantic Coast)
Two years ago, the Blue Devils traveled to Blacksburg, Va. and outlasted VT, 45-43, in the longest game in ACC history. But this time around, Duke was practically driven out of Lane Stadium by the end of the third quarter. The Blue Devils had yet to total 100 yards of offense until quarterback Daniel Jones ripped off a 33-yard run late in the third frame. The sophomore gunslinger didn’t do much besides that though. Granted it was raining for the latter portion of the game, Jones only completed 10 of his 24 pass attempts for a measly 82 yards. Duke has lost five games in a row, and looks worse and worse by the week. The only positive? Duke has the fifth-best defense in the conference.
14. North Carolina (1-8, 0-6 Atlantic Coast)
Playing its third-string quarterback, UNC had the ball, down five points, with less than three minutes to go and a chance to upset No. 10 Miami. For a moment, it looked as if the Tar Heels were about to shake up Coastal Division and college football. But then, they came back down to earth. Jordon Brown fumbled the ball in Hurricane territory, Miami took over, and Rosier ran out the clock. Brown’s turnover—UNC’s fourth of the day—overshadowed the Tar Heels’ best performance in weeks. Although he was turnover prone, Nathan Elliott finally sparked UNC’s offense, passing for 173 yards and running for another 79. The Tar Heels’ rush defense, a unit that was allowing over 200 yards per game, buckled down and kept Miami under 60. A win at home over the division leader would have more than anything head coach Larry Fedora could have asked for. But a loss like this isn’t too shabby either.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor