Friedlander: First impressions of every Week 4 ACC game
The first 3 weeks of the college football season have confirmed what we already knew – that the Atlantic is by far the better of the ACC’s two divisions.
What we didn’t realize is how deep the division has become.
With Florida State and Syracuse off to 3-0 starts, the division race promises to be even more of a free-for-all than expected. It’s a battle that promises to heat up as the weather cools down.
The first key matchup will take place on Saturday when preseason favorite Clemson travels to Winston-Salem to take on defending champion Wake Forest in the marquee matchup of a busy Week 4.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s on tap:
West Virginia at Virginia Tech
When – Thursday, 7:30 pm ET
TV – ESPN
First we had the Backyard Brawl. Now, the ACC looks to go 2-for-2 in rivalry games against West Virginia when the Mountaineers come to Blacksburg to play for the Black Diamond Trophy.
Like the Pitt-WVU matchup, this series dates to when both teams were part of the old Big East. It’s only been played twice since the Hokies joined the ACC, with each team claiming a victory.
Tech (2-1) has made steady progress since its opening night loss at Old Dominion in Brent Pry’s coaching debut. The biggest improvement has been quarterback Grant Wells’ ability to avoid mistakes. He hasn’t thrown an interception in the past 2 games after getting picked off 4 times in his Hokie debut.
But despite a 1-2 record that includes a loss to Pitt, the Mountaineers will be its toughest test to date. A defense that has been Tech’s strength through the first 3 weeks will have its hands full trying to contain Southern Cal and Georgia transfer quarterback JT Daniels and a fleet of backs that piled up 316 yards on the ground against Towson last week.
Virginia at Syracuse
When – Friday, 7:30 pm ET
TV – ESPN
The Orange pulled a rabbit out of their hat Saturday, with a little help from an undisciplined Purdue team, to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2018 and take a little more heat off coach Dino Babers.
Already 1-0 in the ACC, they can take another step forward against a Virginia team that needed a last-second field goal to avoid becoming the second conference team from its state to get beat by ODU. The Cavaliers, however, dominated that game – outgaining the Monarchs 513-324. It only came down to the wire because coach Tony Elliott’s offense couldn’t get out of its own way by committing 3 turnovers and missing a chip shot field goal.
While UVA (2-1) has been its own worst enemy, everything has fallen into place for Syracuse thus far. Undefeated record aside, it’s yet to be seen whether the Orange are for real or not. The folks in Vegas are still apparently unconvinced. They’ve established Syracuse as only a 2½-points favorite.
Clemson at Wake Forest
When – Noon ET
TV – ABC
As important as this game is to the Atlantic Division race and perhaps the ACC’s last shot at keeping a team in the College Football Playoff picture, there’s a reason ABC chose it for the noon time slot. History suggests that it won’t be as attractive as the matchup might suggest.
Let’s put it this way: The Tigers have traditionally been to the Deacons what the Harlem Globetrotters are to the Washington Generals. The last time Wake won in this series, Tommy Bowden was fired as Clemson’s coach the next day. That was 14 years ago.
The Tigers have won the past 4 meetings by a combined margin of 200-46. The Deacons did, however, score 27 of those points in last year’s game at Death Valley. Clemson is also still something of a question mark offensively and is dealing with a rash of injuries on its defensive line.
Tackles Tyler Davis and Tre Williams, along with end Xavier Thomas all missed Saturday’s game against Louisiana Tech. So did star end Bryan Bresee, who is mourning the death of his younger sister, Ella.
The uncertainty surrounding them could be the advantage Sam Hartman and Wake need to pull off the upset. To have any chance, though, they’re going to have to play better than they did in their mistake-filled one-point survival against Liberty.
Duke at Kansas
When – Noon, ET
TV – FS1
First-year coach Jon Scheyer’s Blue Devils are going to have their hands full heading into Allen Fieldhouse to take on Bill Self’s defending national champion Jayhawks in a matchup of undefeated teams.
You mean this is a football game?
The traditional doormats of the ACC and Big 12 have finally gotten up off the floor to become two of the biggest feel-good stories of the early season.
Duke has fashioned a 3-0 start under its other rookie coach, Mike Elko, behind a passing offense – triggered by Riley Leonard – that ranks 4th in the ACC at 255 yards per game and an opportunistic defense that has already forced 7 turnovers.
Like the Blue Devils, the Jayhawks are 3-0 under second-year coach Lance Leipold. Their hot start, however, has come against much more formidable competition – with road wins against West Virginia and Houston to their credit.
Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels is coming off a 5-touchdown performance in which he threw for 158 yards and ran for 115 in a 48-30 win against a Cougars team that started the team in the national rankings.
South Florida at Louisville
When – Noon ET
TV – RSN
For the third straight week, the Cardinals will face an opponent from Florida. They’re hoping this one goes more like their nonconference win at UCF than last Friday’s loss to Florida State in their home opener.
At 1-2 with its most difficult games still to come, Louisville already is bordering on must-win territory. And the 1-2 Bulls are no pushover. They led 18th-ranked Florida at The Swamp until the final 5 minutes last week before dropping a 31-28 decision.
As always, the key to the game for the Cardinals is how much help they’re able to provide for star quarterback Malik Cunningham. As was proven last week against the Seminoles, they can’t always count on him winning games on his own.
The Bulls also have a dual-threat quarterback capable of singlehandedly tilting a game in his team’s favor. Gerry Bohanon ran for 103 yards, threw for 116 and accounted for 3 touchdowns in the near-miss against the Gators.
Rhode Island at Pittsburgh
When – Noon ET
TV – RSN
The Panthers get another week to rest injured quarterback Kedon Slovis and his equally hobbled backup Nick Patti, both of whom missed Saturday’s win at Western Michigan. Freshman Nate Yarnell filled in well, playing a mistake-free game while relying on running backs Israel Abanikanda and Vincent Davis, and a stout defense to pull Pitt through.
It’s a formula that should work just as well in the Panthers’ final tune-up before the start of ACC play. While the Rams are a solid FCS team that went 7-4 last year and are off to a 2-1 start in 2022, they should be no match for the defending ACC champions.
Even with a third-string quarterback.
Middle Tennessee at Miami
When – 3:30 pm ET
TV – ACC Network
The Blue Raiders are the perfect opponent on which the Hurricanes can take out some frustration after their missed opportunity at Texas A&M on Saturday and start building some momentum for next week’s ACC opener.
Coach Mario Cristobal’s 2-1 team can’t afford an Aggies hangover, though. MTSU is famous for getting off to fast starts. Since bouncing back from an opening week blowout loss at the hands of James Madison, the Blue Raiders have outscored their past 2 opponents 69-0 in the first half in wins against Colorado State and Tennessee State.
Without leading receiver Xavier Restapo, quarterback Tyler Van Dyke should have plenty of opportunities to find a new go-to guy and get his team back into the end zone while working to regain the offensive rhythm that was lost in the disappointing 17-9 loss in College Station.
Notre Dame at North Carolina
When – 3:30 pm ET
TV – ABC
Though not as sexy a matchup as it would have been had the Irish not stumbled out of the gate with 2 straight losses, it’s still a huge test for a Tar Heels squad looking to extend their early-season winning streak to 4.
It’s a not-so-classic matchup of a Notre Dame offense that’s had a hard time finding the end zone in its first 3 games against a UNC defense that can’t seem to keep its opponents out of it.
Call it the stoppable force meets the moveable object.
There is at least some hope for both teams, though. After a shaky start against Cal on Saturday, one that earned him a profanity-laced tongue-lashing from offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, quarterback Drew Pyne got his act together in his first start in place of injured teammate Tyler Buchner.
UNC’s defense, meanwhile, could benefit from an open date that allowed defensive coordinator Gene Chizik to work on improving a unit that ranks dead last in the ACC in scoring defense at 37.7 points allowed per game.
With Pitt and Miami having both already lost their biggest nonconference tests, a win could set UNC up to make a serious run at the Coastal Division title when conference play begins next week.
Georgia Tech at UCF
When – 4 pm ET
TV – ESPNU
The Yellow Jackets’ season of misery continues with a trip to Central Florida, whose only loss in 3 games this season came against Louisville. The biggest question going into this one is whether coach Geoff Collins will be put out of his misery if another opponent hangs another lopsided score on his team.
The good news for Collins and the Yellow Jackets is that the task won’t be tougher than it was last week against Ole Miss. Although they might think they’re having a recurring nightmare about facing the Rebels.
That’s because UCF’s quarterback, John Rhys Plumlee played his first 3 college seasons at Ole Miss before joining the Knights. He’s a dual-threat terror who has thrown for 778 yards and rushed for 304 while accounting for 8 touchdowns in leading his team to a 2-1 record. He should have a field day against a defense that makes everyone look an All-American.
UConn at NC State
When – 7:30 pm ET
TV – RSN
The Wolfpack’s defense has shown that it’s ready for its highly-anticipated showdown at Clemson in 2 weeks. Quarterback Devin Leary and the offense?
Not as much.
Whether it’s a problem with the offensive line, a young receiving corps still looking for playmakers to emerge or an issue with the play calling, something has been missing through the first 3 weeks. The game against the Huskies will be State’s last chance to figure things out and get in sync before heading to Death Valley.
Historically, this is the kind of game that has tripped up the Wolfpack and added to the frustration of an already tortured fan base. But against arguably the worst FBS team in the country, even the Wolfpack can sleepwalk through this one and win.
Boston College at Florida State
When – 8 pm
TV – ACC Network
There’s a likelihood that Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis won’t play after suffering a leg injury in Friday’s win at Louisville. Although his backup Tate Rodemaker acquitted himself well in leading a come-from-behind victory, his task might be more difficult now that the opposition has had a week to plan for him.
FSU could also be without starting left tackle Fabien Lovett and pass rushing ace Jared Verse, both of whom are also dealing with injuries.
Of course, none of that might matter against a 1-2 Eagles team that has struggled to run the ball and is already 0-1 in the ACC. At 4-0 (1-0) the Seminoles are on the verge of creeping back into the national rankings.
Not to mention the thick of a brewing Atlantic Division free-for-all.