10 things I'm absolutely overreacting to after Week 5 in the ACC
I’d like to introduce you to the Duke Blue Devils.
No, not those Duke Blue Devils, the ones you love to hate on the basketball court. But the much more likable football team you were introduced to on College GameDay this Saturday.
They’re a gritty, hard-working group that’s being portrayed as a plucky underdog. But don’t be deceived by the narrative. Their performances against Clemson and Notre Dame are no fluke. They’re a talented, experienced, well-coached group that deserves all the attention they finally began to receive last week.
So don’t dismiss them even though they lost a close game in the last minute to a higher-ranked nonconference opponent.
If quarterback Riley Leonard is healthy and available, they’re going to be a factor in the race for the ACC Championship Game right to the end.
OK, that might not be such a big of an overreaction. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So buckle up and get ready for everything else I’m absolutely overreacting to after Week 5 in and around the ACC:
10. Does anybody really know what targeting is or isn’t?
The powers that be in college football are doing everything they can to make the game safer by discouraging and preventing helmet-to-helmet contact. Anyone who saw the collision between Boston College’s Ryan O’Keefe and Virginia’s Malcolm Greene on Saturday understands how important a pursuit that is.
But for crying out loud, can we please do something about defining what targeting is? And be more consistent in how it’s called?
I don’t think anyone, including those doing the reviews and making the determinations, has any idea what exactly constitutes targeting. There were 2 egregious examples of that in the ACC this weekend.
On Friday night, NC State’s Sean Brown was called for targeting, ejected and suspended for the 1st half of next week’s game for making what appeared to be a perfect form tackle on Louisville tight end Josh Lifson. What made the call all the more head-scratching is that a Cardinals player was not penalized for a similar hit on the Wolfpack’s Bradley Rozner.
Then Saturday, Notre Dame’s Jordan Botelho was flagged and disqualified for “appearing to lead with his head,” even though he actually made contact with Duke’s Riley Leonard at hip level.
If you want to call 15-yard penalties on plays like that, fine. But there should be some discretion involved. Ejection and suspension are far too harsh of a punishment for a majority of plays defined as targeting.
9. Wake Forest lost Saturday. And it didn’t even play
Georgia Tech laid a massive egg on Saturday. Just when it seemed as though Brent Key’s team had turned a corner and was headed in the right direction, it gave up 38 unanswered points, possessed the ball for less than 18 minutes and lost decisively to a Bowling Green team that came into the game with a 1-3 record.
What does this have to do with the Deacons?
Well, let’s just say that as bad a look as Saturday’s performance was for the Yellow Jackets, it reflected even worse on Dave Clawson and his team.
In real time it appeared as though Wake had simply lost a close game to an up-and-coming opponent just starting to scratch the surface of its potential, Wake’s Sept. 23 loss to Tech looks a lot different now.
The Deacons gave up 8 sacks to a defense that had recorded only 1 in its previous 3 games combined. They turned the ball over 5 times against a team that doesn’t create turnovers. In other words, they got beat by a bad team. Which, by extension, makes them even worse.
8. It wasn’t DJU’s fault after all
DJ Uiagalelei was a convenient scapegoat for Clemson’s failure to reach the College Football Playoff in each of his 2 seasons as the team’s starter. Not to mention a myriad of other letdowns, including a rare loss to rival South Carolina last season.
But with the Tigers already out of Playoff contention and needing a lot of help to get back into the conference race at 3-2 overall (1-2 ACC), it’s clear that DJU might just have been a symptom rather than the cause of the problems taking place in Death Valley.
The numbers successor Cade Klubnik is putting up are remarkably similar to those DJU posted a year ago.
Klubnik is completing 65.4% of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 140.3 through 5 games. Uiagalelei was at 62.1% with a rating of 135.3. Klubnik is on pace to throw for slightly more yards and touchdowns. But that can be chalked up to a more pass-oriented scheme introduced by new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley.
Don’t cry for Uiagalelei, though. He’s doing just fine at his new school, Oregon State. His Beavers are 4-1, including an upset of then-No. 10 Utah on Friday.
7. Clemson won, but it still has flaws
Dabo Swinney insists that he believes this is one of his best Tiger teams, despite its disappointing record. But even after Saturday’s routine victory at Syracuse moved them back above .500 and finally got them into the win column in conference play, there are still some issues that make a dramatic turnaround anything but a foregone conclusion.
The biggest is their penchant for turning the ball over. It bit them in a big way in a season-opening loss at Duke and gave Florida State the touchdown it needed to send the game into overtime 2 weeks ago at Death Valley.
Even though they lived to talk about it this time, Clemson gave Syracuse a glimmer of hope early in the 4th quarter Saturday when a fumble by tight end Jake Briningstool led directly to a Cuse touchdown.
And then there’s the kicking issues.
Bringing Jonathan Weitz literally off the street made for a fun story. But in practice, it’s done nothing to solve a recurring problem that continues to cost Clemson points. Weitz, who missed the potential game-winning field goal against FSU, shanked another one against Syracuse. His inconsistency prompted Swinney to go for it, unsuccessfully, on 4th-and-1 from the Syracuse 5 instead of attempting a field goal.
That lack of confidence in the kicking game could end up being a deciding factor in a close game. With upcoming games remaining against the likes of Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame and South Carolina, there are likely to be a few of those between now and the end of the season.
6. Clemson OCs don’t make good head coaches
Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s a pattern. You can decide for yourself. But here are the raw numbers concerning Swinney’s former offensive coordinators as college head coaches:
- Tony Elliott (2020-present): 3-12 at Virginia
- Chad Morris (2011-14): 14-22 at SMU, 4-18 at Arkansas. Fired.
- Jeff Scott (2015-19): 4-26 at USF. Fired.
Billy Napier (2009-10) is the exception that proves the rule so far. He was 40-12 at Louisiana before moving over to Florida, where he hasn’t exactly wowed the folks in Gainesville at 9-9 overall (4-6 SEC).
It’s tough to pile on Elliott because of what he and his program have been through and the compassion with which he handled last year’s tragedy. But it’s an indisputable fact that on the field, his performance over the first 16 games at Virginia has left a lot to be desired.
More than just the 0-5 start this season is the way they’ve lost those games. Virginia has been outscored 105-48 in the 4th quarter, leading to losses in all 3 of the games in which it was ahead or tied during the final 15 minutes. Including Saturday’s defeat at Boston College.
5. NC State is wasting another elite defense
Dave Doeren loves to talk about “complementary football.” Now if only he can get his team to play that way. His Wolfpack are well on their way to squandering a championship-caliber defense for the second straight year.
State allowed the fewest points and 2nd-fewest yards in the ACC last season while leading the league with 19 interceptions, the best the Wolfpack could do because of an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way was 8 wins and a Duke’s Mayo Bowl berth.
Doeren tried to address the disparity this season by bringing in transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong and offensive coordinator Robert Anae. But it’s only gotten worse. While the defense is once again among the best in the ACC thanks to the play and leadership of linebacker Payton Wilson, the offense remains inept.
Armstrong has thrown more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5). His receivers can’t get open and when they do, they drop the ball as often as they catch it. The line can’t block anyone and the running game consists mainly of the quarterback running for his life.
Perhaps the most effective offensive player in Friday’s ugly 13-10 loss to Louisville was the previously mentioned Wilson. The ACC’s leading tackler, who did just about everything he could with 2 sacks and a forced fumble, carried the ball for a 1st down on a fake punt.
Maybe Doeren should consider playing his best player on offense more often. At this point, anything is worth a try.
4. Pat Narduzzi to Michigan State? Not the way Pitt is playing
Sparty is looking for a new coach in the aftermath of Mel Tucker’s recent firing for off-the-field issues. Narduzzi spent 8 seasons at Michigan State as defensive coordinator from 2007-14, winning the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach in his penultimate season there.
As such, his name is among those most frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.
With Narduzzi’s program at Pittsburgh having taken several steps backward since winning the ACC championship in 2021, now might not be a bad time for him to start looking elsewhere. At the same time, the farther his Panthers fall the less attractive a candidate he’ll become.
This year’s team is a mess. It has lost 4 straight and is struggling mightily on both sides of the ball. Saturday’s loss at Virginia Tech is the low point. At least so far. Not only did his offense manage only 38 yards on the ground against a team that came in allowing better than 200 yards per game, but his defense also gave up 38 points to an opponent ranked 13th in the ACC in scoring.
He is headed for only the 2nd losing season of his 9-year tenure. Hardly the kind of performance needed to impress a potential employer.
3. Duke has nobody to blame but itself
Theoretically, the idea behind playing prevent defense is to prevent the big play TD. In the Blue Devils’ case on Saturday, it prevented them from winning.
Needing only 1 more stop to finish Notre Dame and secure the program’s most meaningful victory in recent memory, coach Mike Elko had his defense drop 8 men back into coverage on a 4th-and-16 play from the Duke 47.
The strategy prevented Irish quarterback Sam Hartman from finding an open receiver downfield. But it gave him plenty of running room to scramble for the 1st down, setting up a 30-yard touchdown run by Audric Estime 1 play later that turned a 1-point lead into a 21-14 loss.
As well as the Blue Devils played for 59 1/2 minutes, all their good work was undone by one self-inflicted wound at the end – leaving Elko second-guessing himself. As well he should..
“When you drop 8 like that, you build a five underneath wall at the sticks,” Elko said afterward. “I have a hard time believing a kid can scramble for 16 yards. … In hindsight, maybe we should have kept rushing.”
Ironically, Notre Dame lost to Ohio State a week earlier by employing the same strategy. Instead of blitzing Kyle McCord on 3rd-and-19 with 15 seconds left, the Irish dropped 8 into coverage and McCord hit Emeka Egbuka for a 22-yard gain to set up their winning 1-yard TD run.
2. Louisville in Charlotte? Don’t laugh, it could happen
The 25th-ranked Cardinals aren’t the best team in the ACC. They’re probably not even in the league’s top 5. But thanks to the Charmin-soft schedule they’ve been gifted, they’re good enough in Jeff Brohm’s 1st season to sneak into the ACC Championship Game.
It doesn’t matter what happens next week against Notre Dame or in their traditional season-ending rivalry against Kentucky. At 3-0 in the ACC already, their chances of getting to Charlotte will hinge entirely on the outcomes of games against Duke on Oct. 28 and at Miami on Nov. 18.
Louisville’s other 3 ACC games are against bottom feeders Virginia, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, whose combined record is 3-12.
1. Pretenders, contenders
OK, so we’ve already identified the 5-0 Cardinals as a contender … even though they might not otherwise be because of their schedule. But who else at or near the top of the ACC standings is or isn’t a serious threat to meet Florida State for the conference title on the first Saturday of December?
Let’s break it down.
North Carolina: Contender. The Tar Heels have Drake Maye, an improving defense and, aside from Miami in Week 7, a schedule that doesn’t grow teeth until the final 3 weeks.
Duke: Contender. The Blue Devils proved against Clemson and again on Saturday against Notre Dame that they have the talent, physicality and character to play on even terms with anyone in the country.
Miami: To be determined. The Hurricanes have looked strong so far. But after next week’s game against Georgia Tech they’ll face back-to-back tests at UNC and at home against Clemson. We’ll know more after that.
Syracuse: Pretender. The Orange got a reality check against Clemson on Saturday after breezing through their nonconference schedule at 4-0. They’ll get 2 more over the next couple of weeks courtesy of UNC and Florida State.
Clemson: Pretender. The Tigers aren’t out of the race for that 2nd championship game spot. But with 2 losses already, they need some help from others – in addition to winning out – to have any shot.